Federal judge excuses Shell's pollution of Illinois town with chemical benzene

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 by: L.J. Devon, Staff Writer
Tags: Shell Oil, benzene pollution, Illinois

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(NaturalNews) Roxana, a village of 1,550 people in southern Illinois, now sits on many acres of benzene-contaminated soil, including toxic groundwater that contains benzene levels 26,000 times greater than allowed by state law. Thanks to multiple chemical spills from a Shell refinery in the last two decades, this area contains levels of benzene hazardous to human health.

Woman cites how benzene traveled through her basement cinder block walls and through an open drain

One woman, Betty Cox, filed suit last October against Shell Oil Company and all companies involved, including ConocoPhillips Company, WRB Refining, Cenovus GPCO and BP Products North America. (These companies took over the refineries when Shell left the area 10 years prior.) She alleges that the refineries spilled large amounts of benzene into the area, which contaminated the surrounding soil, water and air, ultimately causing her to develop cancer years later.

In the suit, Mrs. Cox alleges that the refineries were operated "in a manner that allowed for the release of benzene," including storage procedures that "allowed its release onto surrounding properties," and benzene was allowed to remain underground where it leaked into groundwater supply, including pumping procedures that moved benzene in an unnatural manner, ultimately contaminating her property.

Furthermore, she accused the defendants of trespassing on her property and being a private nuisance, stating that volatile, cancer-causing products such as benzene were allowed to seep into her home through an open drain in her basement and through cracks in her cinder block basement walls.

Judge equates benzene invasion to slug or ant invasion

According to Judge Posner from the 7th Circuit Court in Chicago, Mrs. Cox and others like her cannot sue Shell Oil for chemical pollution and invasion of their property. Why?

The statement, issued by Judge Richard Posner, concludes, "There are many things commonly found in soil beneath rural or suburban houses that homeowners would very much like not to enter their home (such as earthworms, fungi, ants, beetles, slugs, radon, chemical residues, thousands of different types of microbe - and groundwater), but as long as there is no danger of such unwanted visitors, their underground presence should not affect property values."

According to Judge Posner, there is no valid case presented, because carcinogens like benzene pose no more risk than earthworms, ants and slugs. This decision sets a sad, vague precedent, allowing carcinogens like benzene to be dumped freely into the groundwater of entire villages without any accountability.

The judge backs up his ruling, stating, "Benzene in the water supply is one thing; benzene in groundwater that does not feed into the water supply is quite another."

Chemical spills, home invasions and human poisoning now allowed as Shell gets off the hook

Judge Posner's ruling is the final hammer to a 2012 lawsuit filed by the village of Roxana. In the suit, Shell Oil was accused of polluting the town's groundwater and soil with benzene levels as much as 26,000 times greater than allowed by state law. The suit cited 18 documented spills during a 25-year tenure.

According to Judge Posner, state benzene limits do not apply when the benzene levels are not affecting a town's water source - in this case, the town's aquifer.

The town, concerned about the health of its residents, cited the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The agency reports that long-term exposure to benzene can cause leukemia. Moreover, exposure to small amounts of ethyl-benzene can cause cancer and damage the inner ears and kidneys.

But according to the judge's ruling, the health of the residents doesn't matter unless a connection can be made. The ruling dismisses the chemical spills as barely affecting property values, that they are no more important than slug or ant invasions. Accountability dies, and Shell gets off the hook.

The judge states, "The plaintiffs in this case have presented no theory, let alone credible evidence, of a connection between the leaks [and] property values, or between specific defendants and the leaks and property values, that would justify a class action on behalf of all the property owners whose properties sit above groundwater that contains an amount of benzene considered dangerous to human health by regulatory authorities (more than 5 micrograms per liter) - if drunk," Posner wrote. "But, to repeat, there is, as yet anyway, no evidence that any of it is ever drunk."

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