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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Village Claims Shell Oil Ruined Its Water

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (CN) - Roxana, a village of 1,550 in Southern Illinois, claims in court that a Shell oil refinery contaminated the village's water and soil with benzene levels as much as 26,000 times greater than allowed by state law.

The Village of Roxana sued Shell Oil, Equilon Enterprises dba Shell Oil Products, ConocoPhillips, WRB Refining, Cenovus GPO and affiliates, in Madison County Court.

Roxana says the pollution comes from Shell's Wood River refinery.

The refinery has been in operation since 1918. Roxana, 20 miles north of St. Louis, was actually planned around it. The refinery is one of the largest in the nation and the plant takes up most of Roxana's 6.8 square miles.

In 2008, the nearby Village of Hartford filed a class action against Shell and 27 other defendants, claiming the refinery caused unsafe levels of benzene and other chemicals that contaminated the town. That class action has been settled.

Several people in the area have filed lawsuits in recent months claiming that the releases of benzene and other chemicals have led to health problems.

In its 37-page complaint, Roxana says: "Defendants have chosen to emphasize and elevate their own profits over the interest of the health and safety of the residents of Roxana by intentionally, willfully or negligently failing to contain the oil and oil byproducts within the storage tanks and pipelines associated with the refinery so as not to pose a risk or danger to the residents of Roxana.

"Benzene is not the only dangerous chemical released by defendants from the refinery. Other chemicals involved include ethylbenzene, toluene, and n-hexane."

Benzene, a carcinogen, is used in gasoline production because it increases octane rating and reduces knocking. Long-term exposure to large amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. Exposure to lesser amounts of ethylbenzene can cause cancer and damage the inner ears and kidneys, the complaint states, citing the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

In its complaint, Roxana cites 18 spills from the refinery in the past 25 years.

In the first incident, in 1986, an unknown amount of benzene was spilled.

Some of the other spills include 4,900 lbs. of benzene released in December 1987; 7,500 lbs. of benzene, 2,000 lbs. of hydrogen sulfide and 300 lbs. of methyl mercaptan released in February 1989; 30,000 lbs. of benzene released in March 1989; 294,000 gallons of gasoline spilled from a ruptured pipeline in December 1989; and 672,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a ruptured pipeline in February 1990.

"The 18 incidents listed are quite possibly the tip of the iceberg," Derek Brandt of Simmons Browder Gianaris Angelides & Barnerd, one of the attorneys representing Roxana, told Courthouse News.

"The 18 are what we know about. We are at the starting point of the lawsuit. I expect we will learn more about these incidents and many more incidents through discovery."

Much of the contamination is underground and threatens Roxana's groundwater and soil, according to the complaint. The spills have contaminated streets, soil, groundwater and the village's public works yard. Volatile chemicals have penetrated homes through seepage, cracks and drains, which has hurt property values, the complaint states.

Roxana seeks damages for trespass, public nuisance, private nuisance and unjust enrichment. It also seeks declaratory judgment stating that the defendants are responsible for the costs of the cleanup.

"The case is more fundamentally aimed these dangerous products, and you, Shell, have contaminated Roxana's property with it," Brandt said. "What are we supposed to do about it?"

Shell and its Equilon subsidiary, operate the refinery, the other defendants have operated it in the past.

Shell responded to the lawsuit with this statement: "We have noted the allegations in the lawsuit and am [sic] disappointed that the Village of Roxana has taken this step. Our primary concern is for the safety and well being of the Roxana community.

"Under the direction of the regulatory agencies, samples are being collected and analyzed. We recently installed a soil vapor extraction (SVE) system along the east side of Roxana and near the Village Public Works Yard that draws in and eliminates soil vapors. We look forward to finalizing, without further delay, the terms of an Access Agreement with the Village, which would allow us to tie the Public Works Yard property into the SVE system.

"To date, none of the regulatory agencies overseeing the environmental investigation have suggested there is a wide-spread imminent threat to the health or safety of the Roxana residents based on the data collected and analyzed.

"Shell remains committed to the environmental investigation, and we will continue to maintain open communications with the regulatory agencies and the homeowners and their representatives."

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