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Fueled by Fear

Refineries stuck Hartford with a toxic pool of gasoline that just won't go away. Homes burn and residents get sick, but nobody's helping.


Twenty minutes into the meeting, lawyer D. Jeannine Kelly asks whether everyone can hear. Several near the back of the Alton Holiday Inn meeting room say no. Kelly adjusts the microphone while a man in the back row stands up.

"You ain't saying nothing anyway," he mutters as he walks out the door.

These 50 residents of Hartford, Illinois, are looking for answers and action, but this mid-March meeting is just more of the same. They've heard nothing new from the half-dozen lawyers at the front of the room.

More studies are needed. We're not sure how big the problem is. No one will take responsibility. The state doesn't have any money to help. We can't guarantee there won't be more evacuations this spring. We can't rule out more explosions and fires. We're not sure of the health impacts. And we sure feel sorry for you.

"I know you're not necessarily hearing the answers you want to hear, but we're trying to be straight," offers John Waligore, an attorney with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Beneath Hartford lies a lake of gasoline. No one knows its exact size, but it's huge by any measure -- estimates range from 900,000 to 3.8 million gallons. Testing has shown homes contaminated with benzene and other hazardous chemicals, prompting the Illinois Department of Public Health to declare the lake a public-health hazard.

Hartford's residents aren't surprised: The village has been living with this nightmare since 1966.

Noxious fumes invade basements during heavy rains that raise the water table, forcing people from their homes. Residents wonder whether headaches, breathing problems and skin rashes are annoyances or harbingers of things to come. After all, benzene is a carcinogen and other chemicals in gasoline have been linked to birth defects, damage to internal organs and other health problems. Flames are a more direct threat. Through the years, more than a dozen homes have caught fire, some exploding, some igniting as quietly as stoves.

Tonight's meeting called by Kelly, a private attorney looking to sign up clients, is supposed to give residents a chance to ask questions and get updates from state officials. That so many in the crowd seem skeptical is understandable. Past lawsuits haven't helped, the government hasn't helped and oil refineries in the area most definitely have not helped. When it comes to cleaning up, the watchword has always been "voluntary," which, in Hartford, translates into "as little as possible." Solutions paid for by the companies have been patchwork and ineffective, and environmental regulators have let them get away with it.

In what has become a familiar game of point-the-finger, refineries blame each other. The prime suspect has long been a refinery that closed in late September. Now owned by the Premcor Refining Group, the 62-year-old refinery, like others in the area, has changed hands several times. It operated under the name Clark from 1968 until 2000, when Clark USA changed its name to Premcor, which is supposed to signify "premier corporation."

Testing done more than a decade ago showed that most of the gasoline originated at Premcor's refinery, which once processed 64,000 barrels of crude oil each day. Now that the company has shut down the refinery, state environmental officials acknowledge that their hands may be tied. That's why lawyers for the state environmental-protection agency and the attorney general's office have accepted Kelly's invitation to attend this meeting. Citizens, they say, may be in a better position to force solutions than the government.

James Morgan, an assistant state attorney general, has been dealing with this for a dozen years, pressuring refineries, and Premcor in particular, to clean up. Tonight he tells residents that the state is asking refineries with property in or near Hartford to produce all the information they possess about contamination that could have spread from their pipes and plants. It's akin to asking the accused to hand over the hanging rope. In this case, the "or else" is an unproven stick.

"It would be suing companies under theories we haven't used before and that no one's used before," says Morgan, who suggests that private lawsuits could provide remedies -- damage awards to individuals -- not available to the government. "We're trying the voluntary approach first. It will take more time. It will take more time than the return of rains and high levels in the river. I think we're looking at the investigation going on for a couple more months."

That's not good enough for Dennis Bedwell, who's lived in Hartford for 27 years.

"You threaten to fine these people $10,000 a day and you may get somewhere," Bedwell tells the lawyers. "We're hearing the same old thing. We're hearing refineries telling the government what they're going to do."

The lawyers at the front of the room aren't the only ones present. Near the back sits St. Louis attorney Philip C. Graham, who's contemplating a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Hartford residents.

"You'll see a fight like you've never seen before," he promises. "I think this thing's going to make Times Beach look like the proverbial walk in the park."

That remains to be seen. Nearly four decades after the first fume surfaced and more than a quarter-century after the first house fire, environmental regulators still have more questions than answers.

"To be very honest, we don't know what's out there in Hartford," Waligore says.

Ringed by three refineries, Hartford's 1,500 residents have grown accustomed to odd odors in the air and occasional spills from pipelines beneath streets.

The first refinery opened in 1908 and closed in 1985 -- it's now being used by Amoco to store millions of gallons of gasoline. The biggest refinery, now owned by Conoco-Phillips, was built in 1917. The Premcor refinery, with 300 workers, was the village's largest employer until it closed last fall. (On Monday, Premcor announced plans to sell part of its Hartford facility to Conoco-Phillips.)

Refining oil is dirty business. In 2000, the most recent year that statistics are available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Premcor and the Conoco-Phillips refinery poured 1,435 tons of pollutants into the air and the Mississippi River, helping Madison County achieve the distinction of the second-most polluted county in Illinois and the nation's 69th-dirtiest county. Peoria County, in central Illinois, ranks first in the state.

In Hartford, the first suspicious smell -- some described it as a skunk odor -- surfaced in 1966 in the basement of Woodrow Wilson High School. Sinclair, which then operated the refinery now owned by Premcor, performed some tests and pronounced it a case of methane, a compound not associated with gasoline. Probably swamp gas, residents thought.

As years passed, the smell got worse, usually after heavy rains and always on a few streets on the north end of town. At one point, the jail had to be evacuated and a handful of sickened schoolchildren sent home.

On the night of April 23, 1970, an explosion at a home knocked blocks from the foundation and blew out a picture window. A police officer who arrived before firefighters found the furnace ablaze. The state fire marshal's office detected gasoline in the ground at the home's water meter, but fumes not from gasoline were found in holes bored near the home -- police records don't indicate the source of those smells. Many continued to dismiss the problem as swamp or sewer gas.

Three years later, firefighters found a red flame about six inches high burning in the basement of another home. Explosive levels of gas persisted for several days despite efforts to ventilate the house with fans. In 1975, another basement ignited, again with no serious damage. This time, the gas was stopped when a drain hole was plugged. Once again, tests determined that the gas was mostly methane.

Then, in the spring of 1978, all hell broke loose. Police received 76 complaints about gas odors that were strong enough to make eyes and throats burn. Firefighters responded to five fires -- in one case, a kitchen was engulfed when firefighters arrived. Odor complaints began in March and continued through early June, forcing residents to go without heat or hot water, some for several weeks, as they turned off pilot lights and aired out their homes. The power company shut off electricity to more than a dozen homes.

This time, the swamp-gas explanation didn't fly. The odor was obvious: It was straight-up gasoline.

Two weeks before the first fire in 1978, an underground gasoline line ruptured about two blocks from homes that caught fire. The line was owned by Clark, which had purchased the Sinclair refinery a decade earlier. Available records don't indicate how much spilled -- oil companies weren't required to report spills to the state. But enough gas remained to make the soil reek, according to an official with the state fire marshal's office who visited the spill site after the first fire and found explosive fumes just below the surface.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and oil companies dug several test wells in neighborhoods and hit 88-octane gasoline at 32-and-a-half feet, just above the water table. In some places, the gasoline pool was more than eleven feet deep.

The IEPA figured that the lake came from a series of small spills and pipeline leaks that built up over years until 1 million gallons had collected. The state also determined that the gasoline matched Clark's brand.

But the IEPA was hardly a tough guy. Although the agency could fine companies $10,000 for a spill and $1,000 a day for each day a spill continued, the state fined just one polluter in 1978. The agency saw itself as a facilitator that worked with industry. "You could fine all day if you wanted to, but that's not the purpose of our operation," IEPA emergency-response specialist Geof Langley told the Alton Telegraph in 1979.

Waligore makes no apologies for his predecessors. "The state of environmental regulation was more primitive than it is now," he says. Even today, the law doesn't clearly state that spills of petroleum products from underground pipes must be reported if contamination doesn't reach surface water. "A lot of times, very large spills, if there's no proven impact at the time they occur to water, are not strictly reportable, although they may constitute pollution," Waligore says. "You could be violating the [state] Environmental Protection Act, but you may not have to report it."

Without accepting responsibility, Clark drilled two recovery wells in 1978 and 1979 and started pumping gasoline out of the ground -- the company called it a public service. The well system designed by John Mathes and Associates of Columbia, Missouri, won prizes from the Consulting Engineers Council of Illinois, the Illinois Society of Professional Engineers and the St. Louis section of the Association of Civil Engineers. If the two wells didn't get all the gasoline, the rest would be removed with a deeper 100-foot well, according to a 1982 story in the Belleville News-Democrat.

What the public didn't see were reports from Mathes making it clear that the lake of gasoline under Hartford wasn't going to go away.

In 1979, Mathes told Clark that approximately 10 million gallons of petroleum products lay beneath its refinery. Five years later, Mathes told the company that cleaning up the smaller plume beneath the village was cost-prohibitive.

For one thing, there were probably 4 million gallons of gasoline under Hartford -- four times larger than the IEPA estimate -- when pumping began, according to Mathes' report issued in 1984. Pumping had removed about 800,000 gallons, but the two recovery wells could remove no more than an additional half-million gallons, which would leave the village sitting atop 2.7 million gallons of gasoline. Extracting gasoline that had soaked into soil as opposed to removing pools of gas that floated above the water table would be "unjustifiable and uneconomical," the consultants wrote.

"Ultimately, the potential recovery options available to Clark Oil rest upon the IEPA's decision of 'how clean is clean,'" the consultants wrote.

IEPA took no immediate action on either report. It's not clear when the state received the 1984 report. Morgan recalls that the state attorney general's office received the report on contamination beneath the refinery in the early 1990s. "My memory is, we couldn't establish a connection between the village contamination and the refinery contamination and we didn't really have a regulatory hook in place at that time to have them aggressively address the contamination under the facility," Morgan says. "It was basically 'monitor and pump at your own schedule.'"

The IEPA and the state attorney general's office sent Premcor a notice of violation for pollution beneath the refinery last June. Premcor hasn't conceded that it's responsible for pollution on its own property. Determining whether contamination migrated from a source outside the refinery is one of the goals of a groundwater-monitoring plan Premcor gave the IEPA in December. The IEPA rejected the plan. For one thing, the company didn't propose drilling recovery wells, either on its own property or in the village. "Presently Premcor is putting together an investigation," Waligore says. "They are a little bit more willing to cooperate as to the refinery itself than they are with the residential area."

Refining petroleum requires huge amounts of water, so much that refineries have changed the natural flow of groundwater in Hartford. Water that would otherwise move toward the Mississippi instead travels toward refinery wells that extract as much as a million gallons of water per day. Premcor says it will continue pumping water indefinitely to prevent contamination beneath the refinery from spreading.

Despite the pumping of underground gasoline that began in the summer of 1978, four fires broke out the next spring. But Clark's recovery wells appeared to make a difference in ensuing years.

After Clark installed the second well, in the summer of 1979, Hartford enjoyed a decade with just two fires, one in 1981 and another in 1985. The fire and police departments received just eleven odor complaints during the 1980s. Longtime residents say fumes still came with spring rains, but they learned to deal with them.

Then came the spring of 1990, when heavy rain ended a two-year drought and any notion that Clark had solved the problem. Five homes caught fire, with one burning to the ground. Explosive levels of gas were found in several other buildings, including a senior center.

Eight months after the 1990 fires, the IEPA issued a report stating that between that between 900,000 and 3.8 million gallons remained under Hartford. The report pinned the blame on Clark, which at that point had pumped out nearly 1.2 million gallons.

Officials with Clark and other refineries were granted access to the report because the companies helped prepare it. The public, however, was not allowed to see the document. Residents whose homes were uninhabitable learned of the report only after it was leaked to the media. Even today, the IEPA will not share the full document with the public. When the Riverfront Times requested access to the report under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, long sections, including the entire final page, were blacked out.

Waligore, the IEPA lawyer who determined which parts of the report should be excised, defends his decision to keep parts secret, including recommendations for dealing with the mess. "Those are just preliminary recommendations," he says. Morgan, the lawyer with the state attorney general's office, also supports the secrecy. "This is what one person within the agency thought," he says. "It's not representative of the agency as a whole." The state, Morgan says, wants to avoid the prospect of environmental regulators' being second-guessed by the public.

Even without the recommendations, the report is damning.

"The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has determined that a large pool of hydrocarbon situated under the village of Hartford was apparently leaked by Clark Oil and Refining Corporation from pipelines associated with their ... refinery," the report states. "Available evidence concerning the chemical composition of the hydrocarbon as well as the hydrogeology of the area support this conclusion."

The report revealed two potential sources, one an abandoned pipeline owned by Sinclair and operated by Arco that had been left full of unleaded gasoline to prevent corrosion. When the companies checked, the line was leaking and missing 10,500 gallons. A Clark pipeline may have been a bigger problem.

Mark Shrimpe, vice president of the Hartford/Wood River Terminal, where barges are loaded with gasoline, told the IEPA that a ten-inch pipeline from the Clark refinery to the terminal had been coming up short by 360 barrels -- or slightly more than 15,000 gallons -- each week. Shrimpe told investigators that the shortage was due either to malfunctioning gauges or a leak. Shrimpe suspected a leak, but the line was never pressure-tested to determine whether that was true, the IEPA reported. The line was shut down at the time of the IEPA report.

Shrimpe, who no longer works at the terminal, recalls the shortages in the 1980s, but he can't remember how long the line was coming up short before it was shut down. "I was being short and they weren't being long on their records, so it was going somewhere," he says. "It wasn't really per week; it was per shipment. It was about a 15,000-barrel shipment we were receiving, and we'd be 360 short. I wasn't going to pay for the amount we were short. Therefore we started running through a Marathon pipeline."

The state wants to know more about the pipeline that the IEPA believes was replaced sometime between 1988 and 1992. "Given the location, we think it is very likely that this is one of the principal sources, if not the principal source," Waligore says. "I think [it was leaking] for a long period of time. I really can't say with any great certainty. If you have something that's corroding -- which was the case here; it was corrosion -- it goes on over time and you may not know when it starts."

So far, neither Premcor nor Apex Oil, the former parent company of Clark until the refinery changed hands in 1988, have been much help. "In this instance, the most telling record actually is their own inventory records," Waligore says. "We don't have those, and Premcor is now claiming, with the transfer from Apex, they somehow lost the records. I can't comment on whether that's true or not."

The IEPA also drew conclusions from the chemical composition of the gasoline. Samples were analyzed by Clark, Amoco and Shell, which at the time owned the refinery now operated by Conoco-Phillips. Testing by all three companies showed the same result: The gasoline beneath Hartford was refined with hydrofluoric acid, a chemical used by Clark but not by other refineries in the area.

Once again, Clark ducked blame.

In response to a 1990 lawsuit filed by residents against Clark and Shell, Clark attorneys argued that 294,000 gallons of gasoline spilled from a Shell pipeline in late 1989 caused fires and fumes the next spring. Attorneys for Shell noted that the gas spilled in 1989 was unleaded and the gasoline beneath Hartford was leaded fuel.

In 1993, Clark produced a report pointing the finger at other refineries. By analyzing samples taken from seventeen wells during the last six months of 1992, Clark determined that the average ratio of isomers in the Hartford gas was 1.69, compared with 2.14 for gasoline refined by Clark and 0.98 at other refineries. Given those numbers, the gasoline under Hartford had to be a mixture of fuels from several sources, Clark concluded.

Even then, the report led others to conclude that Clark was the major contributor to the underground pollution, given that the ratio average was closer to that of gasoline refined with hydrofluoric acid than that of gas refined with the sulfuric acid used at other refineries. "That's certainly Shell's position," Morgan says. It's an argument the state may also use. "I would say if we ever have to go before a court, that's a factor that might be relevant," says Waligore.

Fingerprinting gasoline can be tricky. Two experts not associated with the Hartford case say they'd rely on more than an analysis of isomer ratios before reaching a conclusion.

"Knowing nothing else, it sounds like it's reasonable to believe there's a mixture," says Dr. Scott Stout, a geochemistry-research leader for Battelle Memorial Institute in Massachusetts, a consulting firm that tracks down underground pollution. "Things have certainly evolved a lot since the early '90s. There are more sophisticated techniques available."

Richard Doherty, an environmental engineer with GeoInsight, based in Massachusetts, says tracing the source of gasoline is tough. "A lot of times people come up stumped," says Doherty, who has testified in several pollution-liability cases as an expert witness. "There are a lot of different methods. If you can find an additive that only one company used, that would be great. There are additives like that, but, of course, companies don't like to let on."

Under pressure from the attorney general's office, Clark in 1992 installed a $5 million vapor-recovery system that sucks fumes out of the ground.

At first, the new system appeared to work. Although residents say they still smelled odors after heavy rains, the IEPA received no complaints for more than a decade after the system was installed. The agency assumed that the problem was solved.

But the system, which remains in operation, has flaws. For one thing, it doesn't reach all areas where gasoline fumes find their way to the surface -- something residents such as David Phillips found out the hard way.

Phillips moved into his house, located two blocks from the Clark refinery, five years ago. He grew up in the area, and he'd heard about the gasoline underground. But, like the IEPA, he assumed that the problem was solved, despite the occasional odd odor in his basement. That changed on Mother's Day weekend last year, when the smell wouldn't go away.

"It kept building and building and building," he recalls. "Monday, I took the day off -- we can't ventilate the house without the doors' being open. When you opened the basement door, it was the kind of smell that would knock you over." Finally he called the fire department. "When the fireman came in and opened the basement door, he stuck his head in, shut the door and asked me to follow him out of the house," he says. "We were at an explosive level."

Phillips and at least three of his neighbors were evacuated. Some accepted Premcor's offer to put them up in a hotel for several weeks while their basements were ventilated. Phillips did not. His basement windows don't open, and he didn't want to leave his house unattended with the windows and doors wide open.

Premcor's vapor-recovery system does not extend to Phillips' street, even though Hartford city records show that problems with gasoline fumes on the street date back to the 1970s. All told, fumes invaded at least six homes last spring. Phillips has spent months calling elected officials, the IEPA and the state health department, with no solutions in sight. In July, he got a letter from IEPA director Renee Cipriano, who explained that the state doesn't have any money to clean up the mess and that petroleum products aren't considered hazardous wastes under the federal Superfund program.

"It's the state's fault, as far as I'm concerned," Phillips says. "They're not the ones who dumped however many millions of gallons of gas. They're the ones who let it happen. I asked the attorney general's office: 'What demand did you make upon any refinery to instigate this vapor-recovery system?' They said, 'The proposal was submitted to us, it looks good, go ahead and do it.' It seems like no one ever checked with residents to see if it was working or not. No one complained, but they never asked anyone."

Phillips also has harsh words for refineries.

"The refineries don't feel the need to do anything, or they don't feel the responsibility to do anything," he says. "My reaction to that -- among other things -- is, I can't begin to put a number on the billions and billions and billions of dollars these refineries have made running gas underneath our house and underneath other people's houses and streets, and to turn around and not take responsibility for what happened is borderline criminal."

Eric Schaefer, former chief of enforcement for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says Hartford isn't alone.

"The pattern of having contamination below refineries is nothing new, in part because refineries are old," says Schaefer, who resigned a year ago to take a job as an environmental advocate with the Rockefeller Family Fund in Washington, D.C. "The community gets taken for granted, and people end up getting stuck with it. I keep reminding industry audiences: 'What would you do if this happened in your neighborhood? You wouldn't put up with it for a minute.'"

Owners of the Hartford refinery now under Premcor's control have had more pressing problems than pollution.

Clark Oil and Refining changed hands in 1981, when it was purchased by Clayton-based Apex Oil. Plummeting oil and gasoline prices forced Apex into bankruptcy in 1987, but Apex owner Paul Anthony Novelly, one of the wealthiest men in St. Louis, forged a deal with the Horsham Corporation, a Canadian holding company, that allowed him to keep his hands on Clark while ensuring the survival of Apex.

Novelly and his partner Samuel Goldstein, both board members of Horsham, formed a partnership with Horsham, which purchased Clark, Apex's biggest asset. Novelly and Goldstein retained a 40 percent share of Clark. In 1992, Novelly sold his share to the Canadian company (which by then had changed its name to TrizecHahn) for $100 million and a ski resort in Colorado that he later sold for $77.6 million. He remains CEO of Apex, a now-solvent oil-trading firm with annual revenues in excess of $1 billion.

The bankruptcy was controversial, but many saw the Horsham deal as a brilliant business move. "Novelly took the company, ran up a huge amount of bank debt, bankrupted the thing and, basically, he bought the asset [Clark] out of bankruptcy himself with Horsham," says Mark Erzen, a Chicago environmental attorney who's sued Apex to force the company to pay cleanup costs at an Indiana dump site. "He was on the board of Horsham, so it was a lot of the same players. It was a real big stink as to whether you can basically work both sides of the fence, and he did it."

In 1995, Occidental Petroleum bought a 19 percent stake in Clark, and the Blackstone Group, a New York investment bank, became the majority owner when it bought out TrizecHahn in 1997. Although Blackstone's and Occidental's control of Premcor was diluted when the company went public last year, they remain the largest stockholders, with Blackstone owning slightly less than 40 percent and Occidental slightly more than 10 percent.

Last year, after renaming itself Premcor, the company slashed the 273-employee staff at its Clayton headquarters by one-third, moving many of its administrative offices to Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Premcor bills itself as an aggressive corporation that wants to buy more refineries. In February, the company used proceeds from stock sales to close a $445 million deal for a refinery in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2001, Premcor reported profits of $142.6 million on revenues of $6.4 billion.

Besides current refinery owners, the state has asked Apex and Shell to help investigate the mess beneath Hartford, and perhaps pay to clean it up, but none of the companies has committed to do anything but give information to the IEPA. Premcor and Shell don't see links between their operations and the problem, and Apex, which is still owned by Novelly and has estimated annual revenue in excess of $1 billion, says the 1987 bankruptcy shields the company from monetary liability, Morgan says.

The bankruptcy argument didn't work for Apex in Indiana, where the company settled out of court after a federal judge in 1996 ruled that it could be held liable for cleanup costs. Erzen, who handled the case on behalf of companies that faced more than $30 million in cleanup bills, says duties are different than debts in the eyes of the bankruptcy court. "To the extent that a government agency goes after them and doesn't say, 'Give us a million dollars,' but says, 'Clean it up,' that's something that doesn't get whacked in bankruptcy," Erzen says. "If they were ordered to do something now, they may have to do it."

In a 221-page prospectus published in January, Premcor devotes three sentences to the gasoline beneath Hartford, saying little more than the state is investigating but no one's been held responsible. Premcor acknowledges it might be held liable for pollution outside its properties that could force the company to spend more than the $49.6 million budget it's established for cleanup costs at Hartford and Blue Island, a refinery near Chicago that Premcor closed in 2001.

Premcor, under its current name and former name of Clark, was hit by environmental regulators during the 1990s, with the company paying more than $10 million in fines for violating state and federal environmental laws in Illinois.

In 1990, the state health department faulted Clark for failing to comply with a law that requires companies to disclose the amount of chemicals they release into the environment. The federal law took effect in 1987, when Clark reported releasing just 500 pounds of chemicals -- chlorine and methanol -- into the air. If the company's report was accurate, Clark was running the world's cleanest refinery, but nobody believed that.

"The accuracy of Clark Oil's reporting of environmental releases has ... been called into question," health investigators wrote in 1990. Three years later, the state attorney general's office filed charges against Clark before the state Pollution Control Board, claiming that the company had failed to accurately report emissions in 1988, when it claimed that 1,250 pounds of chemicals were released into the air. The case was settled, with Clark agreeing to pay a $40,000 fine and promising to report accurately in the future. By the time the case ended, Clark was admitting to chemical releases of more than 10,000 pounds. But the company still wasn't up to snuff.

In 1999, the federal Environmental Protection Agency accused Clark of 34 violations of the same reporting law, again at the Hartford plant. The EPA sought a $498,000 fine. When Clark countered with an $8,000 offer, regulators played hardball, eventually settling the case in November 2000, with Clark agreeing to spend $330,000 on pollution-control equipment and pay a $56,250 fine.

That wasn't the end of Clark's environmental sins. The company paid a $232,800 fine in 1996 after the IEPA cited the Hartford refinery for thirteen spills of gasoline, oils, asphalt and sulfuric acid totaling an estimated 400,000 gallons. In 2001, the company paid a $2 million fine to settle a case in which the company was accused of failing to obtain proper permits and install required air-scrubbers when it upgraded the Hartford plant in 1994. In addition to the fine, the company agreed to spend as much as $20 million to install the scrubbers by July of this year, but much of that money was never spent because the plant closed.

Last year, Premcor paid a $6.25 million fine to settle a civil case against its Blue Island refinery, where state and federal regulators accused the company of illegally dumping pollution into a tributary of the Mississippi River and failing to accurately report emissions. Two company officials were convicted on criminal charges for violating environmental laws. The company also pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was punished with a $2 million fine.

The state last year issued two notices of violation to Premcor for pollution at the Hartford refinery that remain pending. Mike Roubitchek, an IEPA lawyer, says the agency is preparing two more.

Thomas Davis, an attorney with the Illinois attorney general's office, has one word to describe Premcor's record of complying with environmental laws. "Deplorable," says Davis, who oversees enforcement of environmental statutes.

"Generally, if you look at the big picture, good businesses stay in business," Davis says. "And Premcor had to shut its Blue Island facility and is no longer operating in Hartford. So that tells a story right there."

Premcor is a tempting target for private attorneys. But dozens of lawsuits filed by village residents against the company and other refineries have produced few results.

Some cases have been settled out of court, but just who's paid -- and how much -- isn't known. "So far, when we ask the refineries what the results were, they say, 'Settlements are sealed,'" says Morgan.

It's not clear what happened with a 1978 class-action suit filed against all three refineries in and near Hartford. The Madison County Circuit Clerk's office could not locate the lawsuit, but Eugene Overton, one of the plaintiffs, says he didn't get very much, considering his house caught fire twice in a two-week period. The first explosion was loud enough to bring him running from his yard, and he went without gas or electricity for more than a month.

"For all my damn trouble, I think I got $2,000 and I think they paid the insurance company back $4,000 -- I signed a thing for them to collect the insurance money back from Clark Oil," says Overton, who says he also collected $5,000 from a 1990 lawsuit filed against Clark and Shell. "Hell, that ain't nothing for breathing in benzene all these years."

Thirty-four residents sued Clark in 1991 and were joined by another nine plaintiffs the next year in a nearly identical lawsuit. Clark argued that it couldn't be held responsible for past pollution because of the bankruptcy, and Madison County Circuit Court Judge Phillip Kardis agreed, prompting the plaintiffs to withdraw their cases and pay the company a total of $2,448 in legal fees.

"We had a video of taking contaminated water out of somebody's basement and putting it in an old Ford from the 1930s or something," says Roy C. Dripps, an attorney who represented dozens of village residents in the early 1990s. "There were enough petrochemicals in the water to allow the car to run."

Several plaintiffs say the money they won after suing Clark and Shell in 1990 wasn't worth the trouble. Like Overton, most received a few thousand dollars.

"To sue a multimillion-dollar corporation, you're fighting a dead horse," says Douglas Neal, a former Hartford police officer who got $5,000 from the case settled in 1997. "When I went up and got my check that day, I saw a whole bunch of people who used to be my neighbors. They said, 'We got $5,000. You got your life back.'"

Neal says gasoline contamination prompted him to give up his police job in 1991 and allow the bank to foreclose on the home he had owned for about seven years. He now lives in Pinckneyville and works as a guard at Menard Correctional Center, a job he says "sucks." But it's better than living in fear.

"I drove by the house damn near all night long when I was on nights because I was concerned about the house burning down," he says. "Once a month, I'd be off for five days. We'd come down to Southern Illinois hoping the damn thing would burn down while we were gone. It never did."

But it came close.

"The hot-water heater, when it kicked on to heat the hot water, would ignite the gas fumes in the basement," Neal says. "My wife just happened to go downstairs one day to do laundry and came running up, saying, 'The basement's on fire!' You could see the flames all around the basement walls, like a stove flame, all the way around the walls from an inch to three inches tall. I knocked the flames down with a towel."

More than anything, Neal says, he worried about his family's health. "That's the reason we moved out," he says. "My wife's had headaches ever since."

Neal's former neighbors also say their health has suffered. Besides headaches, they've had breathing problems and skin rashes. Though they can't prove that gasoline contamination is the cause, they wonder.

"My children have migraines; I have migraines," says Kim Bedwell, Dennis Bedwell's wife. "I have a thyroid disorder. My husband and I, our red blood cells are enlarged, and we don't know what that is from. My youngest child, from birth until three or four years ago, every time she went in for a physical, she had blood in her urine. The pool is right underneath our home. Last spring was the first time we ever had the health department or the [state] EPA come and test our home for fumes -- all these years, me and my husband thought the only danger was fire."

Testing in Bedwell's home and three others last spring showed astronomical levels of hazardous chemicals -- one home had 11 million parts per billion of chemicals deemed a risk to human health. As in prior years, residents experienced nausea, fatigue, headaches, insomnia and burning noses and throats, all symptoms associated with chemicals found in their homes. It was the first time the state had conducted indoor-air tests during a Hartford fume crisis, and results promped the state to declare that fumes inside homes constituted a public-health hazard.

Benzene, a carcinogen linked with leukemia, is considered the most dangerous chemical associated with gasoline. Benzene levels of more than 50 parts per billion can cause health problems after two weeks of exposure, according to the federal government. For exposures ranging from two weeks to one year, concentrations of four parts per billion in a home warrant further investigation, under state and federal guidelines. However, those guidelines are considered conservative. Ken Runkle, environmental toxicologist with the state health department, says a more realistic threshold for exposures longer than two weeks is ten parts per billion. "We make a public-health call based on that," he says.

Testing in basements in May 2002 showed benzene levels as high as 330 parts per billion. As fumes dissipated, chemical levels dropped, but one home tested in June still had a benzene level of twelve parts per billion on the main floor. Levels dropped to acceptable levels in July and August, when the health department tested three homes and found benzene levels below two parts per billion. In a draft health assessment released March 20, the department reported finding no increased rates of leukemia among Hartford residents and concluded that benzene doesn't pose a cancer risk under normal conditions.

The department reached much the same conclusion after testing eight homes in 1996 and 1997 when fumes weren't a problem. Although the department found benzene levels as high as 12.37 parts per billion, the levels didn't persist, so the health department sent letters to residents of tested homes assuring them that the chemicals in their basements weren't cause for concern.

Runkle says the state doesn't believe that air inside Hartford homes constitutes a health hazard when fumes aren't an obvious problem. But he can't be definitive. "I think your nose is a good indicator," he says. "I wouldn't say, necessarily, it's going to be a perfect indicator."

The health department's studies aren't exhaustive. Cathy Copley, a department toxicologist who took the air samples and helped prepare the report released last month, told the Holiday Inn audience that a lack of money has hampered efforts. "We haven't done extensive year-round testing inside and outside," she said. "The work that I have done is not rigorous work."

Waligore says the state is trying to find money for more thorough air-quality studies. "We want to be able to know when conditions are such that people may need to be out of their homes," he says. "We don't want them to be exposed in any life-threatening way here."

Graham, the attorney considering a class-action lawsuit, says he's not discouraged by the health department's report.

"The government and the companies can say what they want," he says. "Certainly benzene, toluene, xylene, those compounds are known to be extremely hazardous to humans, even in small doses."

Cleaning up underground petroleum contamination isn't impossible. But it's expensive. In California, Unocal paid to bulldoze the town of Avila Beach, remove contaminated soil and rebuild after an estimated 400,000 gallons of oil from a leaking pipeline was discovered underground. The solution cost more than $100 million and was forced by citizens who sued under state environmental statutes. In Virginia, Texaco paid $50 million in damages to residents of Fairfax County and agreed to buy homes to settle a lawsuit after 200,000 gallons of oil leaked from a storage tank. All told, the settlement put the company on the hook for $200 million, which didn't include cleanup costs of more than $20 million and a $2.75 million fine.

In Hartford, Premcor last summer balked at installing vapor traps in basement drainholes, a stopgap solution that typically costs less than $1,000 per house. The company also didn't want to install venting systems in foundations. When the IEPA asked Premcor to consider such measures last summer, the company said it couldn't give an answer for at least two months. Cipriano, IEPA director, told the company that was unacceptable and requested a written response within two weeks. A month later, she got it.

In a letter to Cipriano, Bruce Jones, Premcor's environmental, health and safety vice president, noted that the company didn't acquire the facility until 1988, so it couldn't be solely responsible. As for interim measures to protect residents, Jones said Premcor was willing to discuss short-term solutions and participate in a study of groundwater problems as a way of settling pending violations of environmental laws on refinery property. The company would continue operating the flawed vapor-recovery system, but other companies should be required to help with a long-term solution, and Premcor expected the IEPA to give the company credit for past efforts to clean up the mess.

In other words, the days of voluntary measures performed as a public service had come to an end.

Two weeks after Jones sent the letter, Premcor shut down the refinery.

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