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Class action suit targets benzene spill

Claims contamination has hurt property values

June 06, 2011 9:13 PM

The Telegraph

EDWARDSVILLE – Three law firms have filed a class action lawsuit in Madison County, alleging a 1986 Shell Oil Co. benzene spill and intrusion into residences have damaged the groundwater and reduced the value of people’s homes.

The suit is different from other benzene suits in that it seeks compensation for property damage, rather than damages for health effects, including cancer.

Property values have dropped, and residents cannot sell their homes, leaving them “trapped in their homes,” the suit claims.

The suit includes nine counts but does not ask for a specific dollar amount of damages. Besides Shell, BP Products and several people referred to as “John Doe” are named as defendants. The John Does are various designers and engineers in the refining business.

“Benzene and other poisonous hydrocarbons are floating on the groundwater and are in the soil located directly under the village of Roxana. Shell, BP Products and the Does have each caused, or contributed to cause, the formation of the underground plume of benzene and other toxic hydrocarbons (the Benzene Plume), which has destroyed the value of the real estate in Roxana and has placed in serious jeopardy the health of Roxana’s residents,” the suit claims.

The complaint alleges that among the toxic chemicals released, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency documented the release of 8,400 gallons of pure benzene in 1986 from an underground pipeline that extended from the Wood River Refinery in Roxana to a barge-loading facility on the Mississippi River.

“Another Illinois EPA documented release of pure benzene occurred in February 1986,” a spokesman for one of the plaintiffs’ law firms said.

The complaint alleges that the defendants did nothing to clean up or otherwise address the toxic chemicals, including benzene, for more than 20 years.

The refinery continued its groundwater pumping activities, pulling benzene from the 1986 leak under the homes and businesses of the residents of Roxana. The benzene in the groundwater exposes the Roxana residents to benzene vapor intrusion into their homes, attorney Chris Dysart said.

The pumping has lowered the water table and caused the plume to spread, the suit alleges.

The suit alleges that Shell has known about the dangers of benzene causing cancer for decades but, despite its knowledge, it publicly minimized and hid the dangers.

The complaint also alleges Shell has known about the dangers posted by benzene vapors entering homes and other property since it performed studies concerning vapor intrusion in the 1980s.

The complaint alleges the Illinois EPA and the U.S. EPA have cited Shell for numerous environmental violations for its operations at the Wood River Refinery in Roxana.

Most recently, in May 2008, the Illinois EPA cited Shell for violating the Illinois Environmental Protection Act 41 times by exceeding the standards for the release of benzene and other chemicals into the groundwater of Roxana, Dysart said.

The suit claims that, as early as 1948, studies were published that show a link between benzene and blood cancers.

The suit claims Shell first became aware of an excess rate of leukemia at its refineries when a contract worker filed suit in 1979, alleging benzene exposure had caused the worker’s leukemia.

Shell compiled a list of leukemia cases of its past employees and allegedly was the site of the largest number of leukemia deaths, the suit claims.

In 1980, Shell calculated that there were a statistically significant number of leukemia deaths at its Wood River Refinery, the suit claims; however, Shell issued a letter to its employees minimizing the risks.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health criticized that letter, claiming that even low levels of benzene posed a risk.

The suit claims that in May 2010, the Illinois Department of Public Health sent a letter to the Illinois EPA, which states that a report dated February 2010 prepared for Shell by its contractor, URS, and posted on the Roxana Investigation website set forth misleading conclusions regarding the dangers posed by the Roxana benzene plume.

The suit also claims there have been leaks from the mothballed former BP Amoco plant in Wood River.

Dysart said he and his firm, The Dysart Firm of Chesterfield, Mo., were plaintiffs’ attorneys in a class action suit against several refiners in a suit over a plume of gasoline under Hartford. That suit was settled for $40 million, he said.

The plaintiffs also are represented by Goldenberg Heller Antognoli and Rowland of Edwardsville, lawyers who also were involved in a class action concerning the Hartford plume, and a St. Louis firm, Heraldry, Neiers and Jones.

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