Roxana Property Owners’ Benzene Contamination Lawsuit Moves Forward Against Oil Refinery Owners

Property owners in the Village of Roxana filed suit last year against Shell Oil Company, ConocoPhillips and WRB Refining LP, seeking to hold the former and current owners and operators of the Wood River Refinery responsible for releasing carcinogenic chemicals underneath portions of the village (Case No. 12-cv-336-GPM). The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois rejected Shell’s immediate efforts to dismiss the case and, this week, certified a class of property owners to pursue these claims.

“This means our clients and the class can look forward to having their day in court,” said Simmons Hanly Conroy Shareholder Derek Brandt, who leads the firm’s efforts on behalf of the property owners.

Despite extensively mapped chemical plumes under the Village, the refinery defendants argued there should be no class action and that each property owner should have to proceed individually. Instead, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class and appointed the named plaintiffs in the suit – each of whom is a Simmons Hanly Conroy client – as the class representatives. The Firm and its co-counsel have been appointed class counsel.

The lawsuit alleges property damage stemming from benzene and other carcinogenic chemical releases that have contaminated the groundwater, land and air of Roxana. According to the complaint, the fugitive emissions are attributed to broken pipelines and the refinery itself. In one incident, which occurred during the time Shell owned the refinery, more than 200,000 pounds of pure benzene was released from a pipeline directly into the ground.

Much of the contamination remains underground, where a network of monitoring wells has detected excessive levels of benzene at numerous locations. Brandt said some monitoring wells have shown increasing benzene concentrations in 2012 and even as recently as the second quarter of 2013.

One monitoring well in the residential area of the village recorded groundwater benzene concentrations of 72,900 micrograms/liter. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum benzene contaminant limit for drinking water is 5 micrograms/liter. Meanwhile, Shell continues to construct additional wells at the western edge of the investigation area, seeking to identify just how far the plume extends.

The highest levels of benzene detected in groundwater have been found below the Village of Roxana’s Public Works Yard at the southern end of the residential area adjacent to the refinery. Benzene readings there have exceeded 1.8 million micrograms/liter.

In certifying the plaintiff class, the Court ruled the property owners have sufficient common interests and the case turns on sufficiently common questions that the action may be pursued on a group basis under federal procedure. “We will continue to vigorously pursue this action on behalf of our clients and the class,” Brandt said.

The plaintiff class is also represented by the New York-based litigation firm Hanly Conroy Bierstein Sheridan Fisher & Hayes LLP. The Village is pursuing separate litigation and is also represented by outside counsel at the Firm, Hanly Conroy, and others.