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Roxana residents assail Shell over benzene worries

Large crowd asks questions about underground plume

June 08, 2011 9:34 PM
GLORIA LLOYD For The Telegraph

ROXANA — Residents concerned about the ramifications of benzene leaks at the former Shell Refinery in 1986 came to an informational meeting Tuesday night looking for reassurance, but many left with more questions than answers.

A crowd of more than 100 residents packed the Rox-Arena to hear a presentation by Simmons law firm attorney Mike Stewart, who outlined a brief history of the benzene plume under Roxana.

Benzene is a carcinogenic chemical that is linked to blood cancers. Stewart said leukemia is benzene’s “signature illness.”

The benzene leak has been monitored by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, paid for by Shell Oil Co., which owned the refinery at the time of two 1986 benzene leaks.

On Monday night, the Roxana Village Board hired Simmons to represent the city in any legal action against Shell related to the benzene.

Residents expressed worry about the effects of rainfall on benzene levels in their basements and how the water table has been affected.

Stewart emphasized that because he only recently became involved at the city’s behest, he could not answer every question residents had but was educating himself on the topic.

“The village has been trying to give me links and information,” Stewart said. “I’ve read everything I can get my hands on.”

Stewart emphasized that the extent of any benzene damage is not fully known until Simmons undertakes a full investigation using outside experts.

“It has been controlled by Shell,” he said. “You’re going to have to do your own testing.

“For those folks that decide to retain us as counsel, we will engage experts, folks that know what to do,” Stewart said. “I’m just a lawyer, right? I’m not an engineer. We hire experts. We test and re-test.”

Stewart said that once individual residents who feel they have suffered damages from the benzene plume hire Simmons to represent them, the law firm’s first step will be an investigation on behalf of those residents.

Some residents wanted immediate reparations.

“I think they should pay for us all to live somewhere else,” one attendee said. “My kids’ rooms are all in the basement, so we’re all just piled in upstairs. This is ridiculous.”

In a telephone interview Wednesday with The Telegraph, Shell spokeswoman Marti Powers said that elevated levels of vapor were detected this spring in the ground beneath the basements of three houses along the refinery fence line.

Powers said Shell sent a mobile unit to the scene to draw soil vapors out of the ground and has applied for a permit for a larger mobile unit to further eliminate the vapors.

These three property owners were told not to go in their basements as a precautionary measure, and the vapors were measured underneath — not inside — the homes.

“We’ve not seen any vapors in the house,” Powers said.

“We have offered alternative lodging and compensation for meals and out-of-pocket expenses for those residents. Only two have taken us up on the offer,” Powers said. “As we’re doing remediation efforts, we’re reducing the levels that are in those homes. We’re working closely with the IEPA and the Illinois Department of Public Health.”

Several meeting attendees were upset that the damage may have been accruing for a quarter of a century.

“It’s not like it has been sitting for this long time; there has been a lot of work that has been happening,” Powers said. “There’s quite a bit of activity right now, which is quite visible, which is drawing some questions about what is really going on.”

“Why wouldn’t they put us in a motel?” one woman asked at the meeting.

Another responded, “Putting us in a hotel means they’re admitting guilt.”

Contingency contracts and questionnaires were available at the meeting for residents who wanted to hire Simmons. Stewart said he would meet personally with anyone who decided at a later time to hire his firm in the matter.

Stewart explained that Simmons had determined that individual lawsuits are the best way to proceed, rather than a single class action lawsuit.

“The damage depends on how close to the plume you are, or any illnesses. Everybody is not similarly situated,” Stewart said. “One person may have a $50,000 home, one person may have a $200,000 home. One person may have lived here their whole life, another person may not have.”

Stewart said any lawsuits would be consolidated for the discovery process, which he said was the best way to actually discern the extent of the damage.

“During the discovery process, we take that information and go to Shell and say, ‘What about this?’ We make them commit to it or deny it,” Stewart said. “That’s what discovery is for.”

Stewart said that during the discovery process of a civil lawsuit, Simmons could request any and all test results stemming from the Roxana benzene monitoring.

Many residents asked questions of Stewart and fellow Simmons attorney Bill Kohlburn, who also would be working on any potential lawsuits.

Powers referred community members to Shell’s website (, where the company has posted results of testing, as well as fact sheets.

Stewart said his firm received a number of concerned telephone calls and decided to host a village meeting.

Powers said IEPA and city officials plan to hold a more formal informational meeting at some point, which Shell representatives will attend.

Residents expressed concern about being able to go in their basements, and Stewart said that residents are having difficulty selling their houses.

“It becomes an issue if you’ve got benzene in your house,” Stewart said. “You can’t sell your house unless you disclose it to the new buyer. Most people are going to say, ‘Eh.’”

Many wondered what the extent of any benzene damage actually is, with Stewart and Roxana City Attorney James Schrempf both stating they felt the current benzene monitoring, paid for by Shell, is not reliable.

Powers said the contractor conducting the testing, URS Corp., is one of America’s largest engineering consulting firms.

“They have a pretty good reputation with public agencies, governments and companies like ours,” Powers said. “Because of that experience and reputation, the IEPA and some of these other agencies like working with them.”

Kohlburn responded to a questioner who asked about benzene levels rising with rainfall.

“Unless you’re monitoring constantly, we’re not going to know for sure,” he said.

The monitoring does not cover all of Roxana. Stewart said the best information he had indicates the monitoring is taking place from First Street to Eighth Street to Illinois Route 111.

Powers said the IEPA determines where testing takes place, as well as the testing protocol itself.

One questioner said she contacted the IEPA in January to request that her house be tested for benzene, and the IEPA declined to test her house because it was outside the predetermined borders for monitoring.

“That’s for you to decide as a citizen,” Stewart said. “If you’re the one living on top of a plume of benzene, that’s for you to decide (to monitor).”


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