By Adam Langer
On a rainy day the Clark oil refinery in Blue Island looks like something out of an Eastern Bloc nightmare. It looms over Kedzie Avenue, gray and dirty, white smoke billowing out of its stacks. From the 50-yard line of the nearby Eisenhower High School football stadium you can smell a vague, rotten-egg odor. From the windows of nearby houses you can see the tips of the belching stacks. As you drive in through the main gates a banner with the blue and orange Clark logo declares, “Welcome to the new Clark.”
Syd Wiley, manager of human resources for Clark, has to have one of the toughest jobs imaginable. As the refinery’s liaison to the community, he’s been saddled with the responsibility of explaining the refinery’s history of explosions, toxic emissions, and safety violations to the increasingly suspicious and angry residents of the neighborhood–many of whom simply want to see Clark shut down.
“I don’t think people have information about our processes,” says Wiley in his smooth Texas drawl, “how we control our processes, the control systems we have, the technology that we have.” Wiley–who used to work for the JM Huber Corporation, which produces gasoline, among other things–signed on to work for Clark a year ago, and he’s been busy ever since trying to reform Clark’s image. He follows up on calls from worried citizens complaining of strange odors. He takes down numbers of squeaky wheels at city council meetings, then calls and assures them that they have nothing to worry about.
“People know that this is a refinery, but they don’t know what a refinery really is,” Wiley says. “They know it makes gasoline, but they don’t know how that gasoline is made. They hear about chemicals, but they don’t really know what those chemicals are, they don’t know how safely the chemicals are handled. Sometimes things run in twos and threes, and we’ve had a little bit of bad luck. People say this place is falling apart. Well, that’s not true. It’s got more state-of-the-art equipment and state-of-the-art safety features than it’s ever had, and we’re continuing to improve–so it’s safer than it ever was. Someone not knowing all the safety features that are out there and all the work that goes into there on a day-to-day basis, they’re scared of the unknown. They see a fire, and they think we’re gonna blow up.
“In years past, with all the litigation, you had a lot of people say, ‘No comment.’ We’re no different than anyone else. But we have taken a position now that probably why a lot of people [are afraid] is because they don’t have the information. It’s just a matter of education.”
But Clark’s attempts to educate the public about the safety of their facility have met with limited success. Because those who began the fight against Clark weren’t given information and didn’t have the technical knowledge of oil refining to make their own case against the company, their complaints were based as much on anger and fear as hard facts–and a continuing series of accidents has only hardened them against the refinery. Other companies on the notoriously polluted southeast side, including JLM Chemicals, release toxic chemicals into the environment, but it’s Clark that community members most often attack. Residents with respiratory problems or cancer have blamed toxic releases from Clark, though they admit they know it’s almost impossible to prove cause and effect. Environmental groups have fired off angry missives to the editors of local newspapers. People claiming to be disgruntled employees have anonymously slipped notes to community members and advocates, accusing Clark of deliberately dumping toxic waste. And it seems that nearly every time Clark takes steps to address one of its well-documented troubles another incident occurs–and the two sides get even farther apart.
The Clark refinery, built at 131st and Kedzie in 1945, is a division of Saint Louis’s Clark Refining & Marketing, which has been owned since 1988 by the Toronto-based Trizec Hahn Corporation. The refinery employs around 300 people, about a third of whom are residents of Blue Island, and has an annual budget of $57 million. Many Blue Island residents are deeply indebted to Clark for the donations it gives to schools and community projects; the company brags that it donates nearly $70,000 annually.
The refinery processes 3.4 million gallons of crude oil per day, from which it produces approximately 2 million gallons of gasoline–one out of ten gallons bought in Chicago. It also produces diesel fuel, kerosene, asphalt, liquefied petroleum gas, butane, and sulfur. In December 1996 Clark proudly announced that it had achieved one million safe work hours at its facility.
But according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents, lawsuits, and newspaper accounts, Clark has also had numerous troubling incidents, ranging from a 1973 discharge of 50 gallons of oil into the Calumet Sag Channel to a 1996 explosion in a severely corroded pipe that rocked the neighborhood to a 1997 leak of at least 100 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel into Midlothian Creek. According to the Alsip-Blue Island Star, the company paid a $133,000 fine in 1994 for various pollution problems, and in May 1995 the state attorney general’s office filed a suit seeking additional fines. That suit, which is still in litigation, stated that pollution from the refinery posed a “substantial threat to the environment or public health of persons.” Illinois attorney general Jim Ryan wanted to shut the refinery down until it cleaned up its act, but Cook County circuit court judge Albert Green said Ryan hadn’t proved that Clark posed a serious enough threat to warrant a shutdown and called Ryan’s attempt “excessive and overreaching.”
In October 1994 an accidental release of aluminum silicate dust–a catalyst that’s used to convert gas and oil into gasoline–forced Eisenhower High School to be evacuated; 48 students and a small number of other area residents were taken to the hospital and treated for nausea, dizziness, and yellowed skin. The Daily Southtown reported that one of the students stopped breathing and had to be revived. Clark officials originally claimed that the fog was nontoxic, the newspaper stated, but later admitted that a “minute amount” of toxic chemicals had been released. Some of the students reported persistent respiratory difficulties following the release, and their complaints became part of a class-action lawsuit filed by attorney Lawrence Leck. That suit asserts that the Clark defendants “breached their duty to manage and operate the refinery in a reasonably safe manner” by, among other things, releasing “pollutants, including catalyst…which Defendants knew, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known, were deleterious, poisonous, and highly harmful to the Plaintiffs.”
Syd Wiley maintains that the dangers caused by the release, which he says was triggered by a power failure at the refinery, were minimal and that area residents were in no particular danger. He also says that the claims of those who say they still have respiratory difficulties as a result of the releases are “highly unlikely, because there are no long-term effects. It’s like a clay. It’s not harmful. If it gets on your skin it’s not gonna do anything. It’s just a nuisance.”
Leck says, “The question behind the class action is, does the stuff that comes out of [Clark] cause people to become ill? Has it reduced the quality of their lives? Should they be checked medically because they live near that refinery? Should a refinery pumping that stuff into the air be required as a cost of doing business to pay for periodic medical exams? And the answer, as far as we’re concerned, is yes. It’s a cost of doing business, and Clark chose to be there. It’s not like the city grew up around the refinery. It’s not like they put up a refinery in a cornfield. They wanted to be close to rail lines and water lines and highways. They should bear the responsibility for contaminating the air, causing people to become ill, and affecting the quality of their lives.”
After the incident, Wiley says, Clark installed backup power generators to prevent similar releases and agreed to install an emergency warning system at the school so that it can be evacuated if there are leaks or other problems.
But more problems followed. On March 13, 1995, an explosion and fire in the processing unit killed 37-year-old Gary Szabla and 50-year-old Michael Forsythe, who were working there at the time. Three other employees were taken to Christ Hospital with burns all over their bodies. An investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration turned up more than 60 safety violations, and Clark agreed to pay $1,257,000 in penalties and to address the violations.
In 1991 the Illinois-based Energy Safety Council, a group composed of members of the Chemical Manufacturers Association and of energy and environmental groups, released a report called “American Bhopals,” which stated that the 229,000 people living within a six-mile radius of Clark could become victims of a “kill zone” if the refinery had a major leak of hydrofluoric acid (which at lower concentrations can burn the eyes, skin, and lungs). Four years later, in May 1995, a small amount–around 15 pounds–of the acid leaked from the area of the refinery that produces high octane gas and lowers the benzene content of crude oil to decrease air pollution. According to the attorney general’s suit, the release “caused approximately 25 students of Eisenhower High School to suffer eye irritation, nausea and dizziness.”
In April 1997, according to the Chicago Tribune, an estimated few hundred gallons of gasoline leaked from a processing line. Residents complained that they should have been notified directly about the leak, but Wiley characterizes the leak as minor. “If you spilled a gallon of gasoline on your driveway and cleaned it up, I doubt if you’d run down the street and tell all your neighbors. If a guy down here discovers we have a leak in a line and it’s leaked out on the ground, he’s gonna clean it up, fix the leak. But are we gonna notify everybody? No–because nobody’s in any danger.”
Wiley acknowledges that Clark is currently undergoing a federal grand jury investigation and has had records subpoenaed. He says he doesn’t know precisely what the grand jury is looking for, adding that such investigations have occurred at other refineries. “It’s not something abnormal.”
“There has been a high rate of asthma and lung-related illnesses in this area, and people have problems breathing,” says Joan Marie Silke, who lives right next to the refinery. “Everybody seems to have basically the same symptoms. Numbness in the arms, hands, back, chest. Pains in the chest. Tightness. They get sick to their stomachs. Eyes burn. Throats burn. Nose burns. And they just get dizzy. This is the norm for the people who live in this neighborhood and people like me who have asthma.”
Silke, a former beautician who has cancer, has lived in Blue Island since 1992. “I can’t go out a lot,” she says. “I like to do gardening and stuff. [The refinery] really makes it hard. I’m fine one day, and I’ll be sick for the next two days. If Clark has a real heavy pollution day I can’t even go outside, because the smoke is blowing right through my yard.”
Silke also worries about the possibility of a fire or explosion. She was lying on her couch recovering from a cancer treatment when the March 1995 explosion and fire happened. “I was sitting here watching TV, and the next thing I know it was like an earthquake. I heard this large rumbling sound, and the whole house literally started shaking. Dishes started falling and crashing off the walls. I went running to the back to my window here, and I saw this fireball go straight up. It was like a mushroom cloud 500 feet in the air, and then with the wind blowing it went right over the top of my house and singed the tops of my trees. For four hours there was nothing but black smoke. Soot was coming through here, and you could literally see the flames shooting over the roof. I thought I was gonna die. I called my husband and said good-bye to him over the phone.”
Silke, who was born in Chicago, was living in Phoenix in 1982 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “I had stage-three cancer of the cervix, and it had spread into the lymph nodes, so I had lymphoma cancer also. They gave me several weeks to live. I went in, did all the treatments. The treatments didn’t work. After about a year of this and a lot of prayers, things started turning around. A lot of damage was done to me, but I’m here today.”
She and her husband moved back to Chicago in 1989, then to Blue Island in 1992. She believes that the continuing health problems she has from her cancer and her ongoing treatments are aggravated by pollution from the Clark refinery, though she readily admits she can’t prove it. “I can’t blame any of my health problems on Clark. My doctors and I have been trying now for three years to figure out what the plant is causing, and we cannot do it. Because even though my symptoms are intensified, you’re not gonna get by in a court of law. I’m high prone for tumors, and I’m a high-risk cancer patient. So if I’m in a cancer-type environment, I’m probably going to wind up with cancer before anybody on the block would.”
Silke remembers the first time she noticed pollution around her house: she was cooking rhubarb and beans from her garden when she saw a brown slime in the pot. Later she noticed a strange sort of snowfall coming from Clark, what she now believes was an emission of the aluminum silicate catalyst. “You could see it from time to time, and if you’re outside when it falls you breathe it. You open the windows and it’s in your house. It gets all over the car all summer long. It’s on the fruit–blue film all over your fruit in the garden. We had some people come out from California from environmental groups, and they told me to quit eating the food because they weren’t too sure if the metals would come up through the ground or soak into the fruit themselves.”
Silke says that in May 1995 a relative came to her door and passed out. “He was driving right by Eisenhower High School, and he was overcome. He said, ‘It really smells bad out here–I’m really sick,’ and that’s when he collapsed. He fell on my floor, couldn’t breathe. I had to flush his eyes out with water, and I thought I’d have to take him to the hospital. It took him about an hour to recuperate.” Silke says she later heard that Clark had had a small hydrofluoric acid release around the same time (the attorney general’s suit cites a release of 15 pounds on May 16). “He probably caught a whiff of it when he was driving past. This is the norm for most of the people in the neighborhood. We’ll be out there, and it’ll be real clear. And then all of a sudden you’ll get a real pungent smell, and you have to run inside so you don’t get sick.”
Late in 1994 Silke decided to try to figure out what the various pollutants were and how dangerous they were, even though she didn’t have a scientific background. She began gathering data and videotaping Clark’s facility. She joined the Good Neighbor Committee, which she now chairs, and later the environmental and industrial board of the city council. She also became a plaintiff in the class-action suit brought on behalf of the Eisenhower students who claimed to have continuing respiratory problems. That suit states that Silke “was exposed to and inhaled pollutants released from the Clark B.I. refinery from October 1993 to the present on a near-daily basis, became ill as a result of the exposures, and continues to require medical care.”
Silke is now a leader in the fight against Clark, yet her criticisms of the refinery still tend to be emotional rather than scientific or legal. “Everybody in the neighborhood lives in constant fear,” she says. “The children next door draw pictures like you would see maybe in Bosnia or Ireland. They draw pictures of Clark blowing up and the houses burning down. They draw violent pictures of people burning in the houses. The kids have nightmares. Children don’t have to be raised like this. It’s terrible.
“Clark wants to keep people hostage. They have no respect for the community, as far as I’m concerned, except for the businesses. In the summertime they don’t have to throw a big beerfest and get everybody drunk. I’ve been accused of trying to stop the beerfest because I’m fighting with Clark. But I’d rather see them take that money and fix the damn plant. I called Clark’s headquarters once to complain, and they called me an outsider. I told Syd Wiley I’m not an outsider–I am your neighbor. If anybody’s an outsider here it’s the corporation.”
Yet Silke still says she doesn’t want to see the refinery closed down, that her only goal is to get Clark to clean up its act. “I like the gas that goes in my car. My family lives in Phoenix. I like to get on the airplane and fly. It’s not realistic to close down the oil plants or the refineries. But we have to come up with better rules and regulations so these places can operate safely and under new technology–and close plants that are unsafe or have them rebuilt so they become safe. Not everybody gets sick, that’s true. But it might affect one child, one unborn baby. The effects might be felt for years and years down a family line.”
“There are days that the sulfur smell is so bad that I have to rush into the house,” says Lionel Trepanier, another resident of Blue Island. “There’s the occasional black smoke that puffs over that just almost chokes you, and I can’t let my children play outside.”
The 34-year-old Trepanier describes himself as a pauper. He says he hasn’t held a steady job for more than ten years but makes a little pocket money here and there from recycling. “I think being a pauper has allowed me to see some things more clearly,” he says. “It helps in doing environmental work, because you’re not diverted by thinking about who’s paying you or what they’re paying you for. You can focus on the environmental work.”
The long-haired, wispy-bearded Trepanier–who in 1994 started his own environmental organization, the Blue Island Greens, which he says has at least five members–has become one of the most vocal opponents of Clark. He wants to clean the refinery up or close it down. He has handed out leaflets calling for the refinery to close and excoriated the company at public meetings. He spends much of his time researching environmental causes at the library and attending meetings of organizations such as the state’s Pollution Control Board, where he’s frequently the only person attending who isn’t representing a corporation or a state agency. He can often be seen walking or riding his bike up and down the streets of Blue Island trying to determine the origin of chemical odors.
In 1985, while working on a farm in northern California weeding carrots, pruning fruit trees, and picking spinach, Trepanier made a resolution that every action he took from then on would “benefit the earth.” At first he focused on the California logging industry, driving slowly in front of logging trucks to make it more difficult for the loggers to remove the trees. But in 1989 he moved back to the Chicago area, where he’s from, to be near his daughters, who were living with their mother in Blue Island.
Trepanier was arrested twice in 1994 for protesting the closing of the Maxwell Street Market, and in 1995 he was arrested while protesting against Clark at a Fourth of July celebration in Blue Island. “I was passing out information indicating that the refinery should be closed, that we’d suffered so greatly and unreasonably. In preparation for the festival I prepared a sign that said, ‘Unjust to Trade Our Children’s Health for Jobs in a Parade! Close Clark,’ with petition information and my phone number. I thought it was a good opportunity to reach people and provide some balance. The refinery had put up money to pay for expenses for the parade, and they put out firemen and whistles and were attempting to show a good face. I thought it was a false face. So I held my sign up in the park, and I stood for about three minutes, in which time I was approached by two people. The first person was the park superintendent, who said, ‘You can’t do that here.’ I said, ‘No, you’re mistaken. I’m exercising the First Amendment.’ He came back with a policeman, and he also told me that I couldn’t have the sign. They attempted to tear the sign away from me and knock me down onto the ground. I didn’t fight them, so I was real easy to knock down. They took my sign, tore it up, and dragged me out of the park. They held me until the end of the festival.” He claims he was held for “displaying a sign of protest without permission,” but all charges were later dropped.
“He got pushed around because he was Lionel,” says attorney Lawrence Leck, who is also representing Trepanier in a suit against the park district. “They arrested him because he was Lionel and would not let him make a phone call. After the festival was over they decided he could make a phone call and post bond. They violated his constitutional rights.”
Trepanier now believes that there’s a conspiracy against him and that Clark was behind his arrest. But, he says, “It’s hard to prove conspiracies to a jury, especially when all the evidence is held by the conspirators.”
Trepanier’s style has made him enemies on all sides of the environmental debate. Alderman Jim Deiters, one of the few outspoken critics of Clark on the Blue Island city council says that, if anything, Trepanier has hindered negotiations between Clark and environmentalists. “A lot of people do not like the way Lionel operates,” Deiters says. “He’s very demanding, and he always has this attitude of ‘You’re doing everything wrong.’ We’re trying to make Clark do it right instead of just saying, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’ He’s got some good ideas, but like a lot of people–they have the good ideas, but they come at it the wrong way.”
“Lionel agitates a lot of people in the area,” says Joan Silke. “A lot of people don’t like him. But you need somebody that radical sometimes.”
A few Blue Island residents have blamed emissions from the Clark refinery for the cancer and deaths of relatives, but a study of the incidence of cancer in Blue Island between 1987 and 1991 conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiologic Studies didn’t turn up an unusual number of cancer cases. No studies have been done on asthma and other respiratory difficulties in Blue Island, though many who live close to Clark complain of these ailments.
Syd Wiley dismisses these complaints, arguing that no such problems exist in the refinery’s workers. “If people were gonna get sick, wouldn’t you think that people right here in the refinery or right next to it would be the ones getting sick? Common sense. These symptoms that people are talking about, they can be anything–but naturally they’re gonna blame it on the fact that they live near a refinery. Every individual’s different. Some people have allergies. Some people are more sensitive to things than others, but it’s highly unlikely that people are being affected.”
Still, the plant does emit a long list of hazardous chemicals. U.S. EPA regulations require Clark to report all emissions it’s responsible for every year. Its “toxic release inventory” for 1993 lists numerous emissions, including 23,047 pounds of ammonia (which the report notes “can cause slight eye/throat irritation” at low exposures), 8,828 pounds of benzene (which the report states is “a known human carcinogen which can cause leukemia. It causes birth defects in animal tests, may cause genetic changes, and can cause harm to the immune system”), 6,421 pounds of toluene (“Can cause harmful effects on the nervous system….Moderate to high levels of exposure can harm liver, kidneys and lungs. High levels of exposure for short periods…can cause death”), 7,507 pounds of xylene (“Short-term exposure to high levels can irritate skin, eyes, nose, and throat; cause difficulty in breathing…and harm liver and kidneys”), 2,260 pounds of 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene (“irritates the nose and throat. High levels of exposure can cause harmful effects to the nervous system”), 755 pounds of chlorine (“inhalation of small amounts for short periods of time can damage the respiratory tract”), 5 pounds of hydrofluoric acid, and 5 pounds of sulfuric acid (“Exposure can be severely irritating to skin, eyes, nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract”). All these amounts are within the allowable limits set by the EPA, according to Clark’s acting environmental engineer, Bill Irwin.
In early 1994, concerned about the potential danger of such chemicals as well as the possibility of a fire or explosion, Alderman Jim Deiters organized a group of citizens, politicians, and activists into the Good Neighbor Committee, which began working to get Clark to adopt better safety procedures. In 1996 the committee–including Deiters, Silke, and Joanna Hoelscher, the state director of Citizens for a Better Environment, but not Trepanier–spent months negotiating with Clark representatives. The Clark reps eventually asked for a specific proposal, and in December the committee put one on the table that would have legally bound Clark to reduce its emissions and improve its safety procedures. Among other things, the proposal would have required Clark to install monitoring systems to detect groundwater contamination, reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain, which can cause respiratory problems), and attempt to eliminate hydrofluoric acid from its refining process. But for reasons that aren’t clear, Clark balked at signing the agreement. The refinery manager, Bob Martindale, told the city council it was “not going to be signed, ever.”
“You can’t go in and just sign an agreement,” says Syd Wiley. “An agreement was brought in, and we were asked to sign this. There were a whole bunch of things, and some of those things we might be able to do. Some of those things we might not be able to do. We have no problem working with them. If they’ve got something they think we can do, we’ll check and see if it’s possible and pursue it. We want the same things they do. We want clean air and clean water. Some of the things they wanted we’re already doing. We’re constantly looking at ways to reduce our emissions. That just makes for a more efficient process. Alternatives to HF [hydrofluoric acid]? We’re looking at it. They want us to be safe. Well, we want to be safe too.”
Joanna Hoelscher and others accuse Trepanier, who hadn’t known about the negotiations until they were almost over, of helping to sabotage the agreement by leaking a draft to the press. Asked about the charge, Trepanier says that the scuttling of the agreement doesn’t make him unhappy, then adds that CBE is a front for the oil business.
On a rainy day in March Trepanier is driv-ing over to the refinery to meet with Wiley and environmental engineer Ron Snook at their invitation, then take a tour of the plant. Trepanier’s sister, Anna Stange, a Blue Island music teacher, has also come to fear and loathe the refinery. Trepanier quips that Clark should adopt a new slogan: “Clark Oil: We’re dying to serve you!”
Wiley and Snook, treating Trepanier as if he were a professional in the oil business, usher him and his sister into a conference room on the second floor of Clark’s main offices.
Trepanier immediately starts grilling Wiley and Snook about the March 1995 explosion and fire that became part of Attorney General Jim Ryan’s suit against Clark. “Has the pipe-checking process changed since the propane explosion? The most recent one? I heard the testimony, and I saw the piece of pipe in the courtroom. It was said that the pipe had corroded through and that certain piece of pipe had been pointed out in a report as one that was liable to be corroded. And the report was that Clark had checked within four inches.”
“Not Clark,” Wiley says. “That is not correct.”
“Maybe the testimony was that they had hired somebody to check the pipe,” Trepanier says.
“There you go,” says Wiley, smiling.
“Within four inches of where the leak occurred,” Trepanier repeats.
“No, we didn’t instruct anyone to check within four inches,” Wiley says. “That’s in actuality what happened, yes.”
“Has the checking process been changed?”
“No,” Wiley says. “We have a basic philosophy of continuous improvement, whether it’s how we hire people or how we test pipe or how we deal with the public. We continually look at our processes to improve them, OK? You can always find a better way to do something so, yeah, we’re always looking at that. But let me give you an example. You hire someone to fix your plumbing at your home. They’re supposed to check everything, and they miss something. Now should you be held accountable for that because your plumber missed that? You hired a guy–”
“But my question goes beyond that,” says Trepanier.
“What I hear, Lionel, and I’m gonna be candid with you,” Wiley says. “What I hear is–”
“How have you responded to the fact that the person you hired didn’t check that pipe?” Trepanier demands.
“How would you respond to a plumber who missed something in your plumbing when he was supposed to fix it?” Wiley says and smiles.
“My response would depend on how egregious the oversight was. Overlooking pipes in the alkalinization unit that were specifically pointed to as those that were in danger of corrosion and not checking that pipe, that’s much more egregious than just missing some elbow in the corner of the house. I’m wanting to hear that Clark is changing their procedure. Like, ‘Now we’re making people double sign off on the work, and we’ve got someone over their shoulder checking and making sure that the whole pipe is tested.'”
“It got missed,” Wiley admits. “Our reaction to that is that is not acceptable, and our procedures are being looked at for continuous improvement to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And we’re gonna do the same thing that you would do with your plumbing–if they make an egregious error we won’t use them anymore. But you can’t hold us liable for an error that they made.”
“That’d be for the lawyers to figure out,” Trepanier says, laughing.
“Well, let’s look at it from a commonsense standpoint,” Wiley says. “You hire someone to fix your car and your brakes. You drive along and hit my mailbox because your brakes failed. Should I hold you responsible for that, or should I say you got a lousy job done on your brakes? You did the right thing. You hired a guy to fix your brakes ’cause you knew they were faulty. You see what I’m trying to get at? Clark is not going to intentionally put anyone at harm. We have employees that work here. The community is important to us. Their safety comes first, OK? Yes, we’re in the business to make money, which furnishes jobs, which furnishes taxes for the schools, which furnishes profit for the company, OK? That’s what it’s all about–to make gasoline for the Chicago area and the people here. But we’re not gonna do anything that would put that in jeopardy. We’d be foolish.”
“OK,” Trepanier says. “You hired somebody, and they didn’t do the job. But for me that’s no consolation.”
“Exactly,” says Wiley. “Like when you run over my dog with your bad brakes. That’s no consolation for me, OK? But you gotta sit down and talk and be realistic. It’s not your fault. You did what you were supposed to do in good faith. And that’s, I guess, what I’m saying. We have people out there that believe we aren’t putting forward good faith, and I believe that’s because we haven’t talked to people.”
Trepanier then asks whether Clark, even though it’s operating within the law, has considered reducing sulfur dioxide emissions to improve local air quality.
“We’re constantly looking at reductions in everything,” Wiley says. “Some new technology comes along? We’re looking at it. We have what we consider to be the latest in technology to control emissions. Now if there’s something better out there we want to see it, because we have as good emissions control as any other refinery.”
“I saw the CEO of your company,” Trepanier says, “and I told him that we’re letting people know that they shouldn’t buy Clark gas, based on the belief that the sulfur dioxide emissions in creating Clark gas are much higher than nearly every other refinery–if not the greatest.”
“If you could show us where you get your information–that’s news to me,” Wiley says.
Trepanier’s sister, who’s been listening silently, suddenly says, “Had I known this refinery was here, I would not have bought my house in Blue Island. So when I go to sell my house now, I’m assuming–and not to say that I’m a dumb person–that I’m gonna have to sell it to a person who’s as dumb as I was about having this refinery here. I have people tell me, ‘Why live there? Move somewhere away from an oil refinery. You’re not wise to live there.’ What would you respond? How can I say it’s safe to live a mile away from an oil refinery that’s had a number of accidents just since I’ve been here?”
“How many of those accidents have affected you?” Wiley asks.
“I would say all of them,” Stange says, “because it has affected my fear from a lack of knowledge, my personal concern for my safety and the health of my child. So it has not affected directly a specific aspect, but an overall quality of my life. It has a very strong effect.”
“And that’s because you haven’t been given the information.”
“It’s also what I smell.”
“I come from the country,” says Wiley. “We raised cattle. We raised hogs. You ever live next to a pig farm? There’s a smell–that doesn’t mean it’s harmful to you. Lots of things have odors. Doesn’t mean it’s harmful to you. In concentrations there’s a lot of things that are harmful to you if you breath them. Dirt–in concentrations, if you breathe it it’s harmful. So’s ash. So’s sulfur. But because you can smell sulfur doesn’t mean it’s harmful to you. I wish I didn’t have to smell it. I gotta smell it.”
“Basically what you’re saying is what’s coming out of here is not harmful,” says Stange.
“No,” says Wiley. “What I’m saying is that the concentrations coming out are not harmful. Sulfur can be harmful to you, yeah. But in the concentrations that we’re releasing, no, it’s not harmful to you. Doesn’t smell good though. No more than methane gas from a pig farm smells good.”
Later that month the members of the Good Neighbor Committee gather in the 911 center of Blue Island’s fire department. The meeting is chaired by Joan Silke and Alderman Deiters. Lionel Trepanier, Syd Wiley, Joanna Hoelscher, and about 30 other area residents are in attendance. This is the first time that Wiley has come to a committee meeting.
On tonight’s agenda is a “bucket brigade,” a plan committee members have hatched with Lawrence Leck to take their own air samples to determine whether Clark’s reports about what the plant emits have been accurate. Silke has encouraged members of the community to contact her whenever they smell something unusual so she can take an air sample and have it analyzed. She says she’s already conducted some tests, but the results were inconclusive. She says only that the levels of toxics in the atmosphere are “higher than we’d like.”
For a while Wiley affably answers questions from people about odors, cancer, asthma, natural gas leaks. Then the floor is turned over to Trepanier, who gives an account of his meeting with Wiley and Snook.
“I asked Clark about the water discharges,” Trepanier says. “I showed that Clark was cited 25 years ago and in 1995 for discharging into the canal and the recent pipeline leak. The response was they will do nothing. What I understood is that it is Clark’s position that these were acts of God. I brought up the SO2 emissions. They told us they have the best SO2 emissions control facility in the industry.
“I was there,” Wiley says, bristling. “We never said that it was an act of God. Those are his words. Clark did not say that. We gave Lionel a tour of the facility. He did bring up the SO2. I asked Lionel for more information on where he saw that Clark was the most polluting facility. He did not furnish that information. I want people to understand I’m not defending, but we can’t have the wrong information going out to people. We are more than happy to give information. We are doing everything we can–”
“The real challenge is whether something will be done about the water discharges,” Trepanier says. “Whether or not they said it was an act of God is a nonissue.” He pulls a letter out of a beat-up file folder and displays it. “I would just also point out that I did receive a letter from the president of Clark, dated the 22nd of January, saying that they were reviewing the results and they would share their opinions as soon as information was available. So I would say that we’re probably right that they’re right up there as the most polluting–”
“I don’t know where Lionel got his information,” says Hoelscher, “but our information shows that Clark is fifth in terms of SO2 emissions.”
“I want to say one thing,” Wiley snaps. “You heard Lionel say, ‘We’re probably correct.’ You can’t go around saying you’re ‘probably correct.’ Lionel’s statement was that Clark has the highest emissions of any refinery. You just heard that we do not have the highest emissions.” He holds up five fingers. “Number five. That’s what she said.”
“Pollution is injury to people,” Trepanier says. “This is a refinery that is located next to 380,000 people. Other refineries are not right in people’s neighborhoods like Clark is.”
“You’ve got to be careful,” Wiley says. “There are many refineries that are located near or in residential areas.”
“Do they pollute like this?” Trepanier shouts. “Do they pollute like you?”
In 1994 Andy Webb, who lives two blocks from the refinery, says he was standing in his yard when he breathed in some dust from a cloud that came from the direction of Clark, which he later correlated with newspaper accounts of an aluminum silicate release at the refinery. He had trouble breathing and was taken to the hospital. He claims that ever since then he’s had respiratory difficulties that require him to be hooked up every night to an oxygen machine, and he now walks with a cane.
“You’ve got these people in the meetings slithering in from Clark now,” says Webb’s wife, Colleen. Neither she nor her husband is on the Good Neighbor Committee, though they regularly attend the meetings. “Now all of a sudden, after all these years that they’ve thumbed their noses, they come into our meetings. And they talk complete rhetoric, and they make fools out of themselves trying to defend the refinery. Like for example, Lionel said somebody did a survey. Out of 165 refineries, Clark’s one of the worst. He said they were the worst, and the guy from Clark stands up and he says, ‘You’re leaving yourself open for a lawsuit by saying we’re the worst. We’re not the worst. We’re fifth from the worst.’ I looked at this guy with my mouth hanging open. If they can’t BS you into believing their rhetoric, then they intimidate you. Fifth from the worst? The worst? It’s all the same to me.”
The Webbs, who’ve lived in the same house for the past 30 years, first began to distrust Clark back in the early 70s, when, they claim, a small explosion at the refinery cracked the foundation of their house. Andy is currently on disability leave from 3M, and Colleen is recovering from a recent heart attack.
Colleen points to her daughter. “She’s asthmatic. She goes to an immunologist every month. She gets shots. My oldest one, he’s bronchial, and my other one has severe sinus infections. Everyone else I know around here who’s been here for any length of time has severe health problems. Next door, she has bad sinus infections all the time, and you got a lot of asthmatics in this neighborhood.”
Colleen knows she can’t prove it, but she blames her aunt’s recent death from leukemia on the benzene Clark has released, because she read that benzene has been linked to leukemia. “Here’s why we blame Clark,” she says. “Clark is the one with the accidents. They’re lucky that JLM is next door and they can say, ‘Hey, them too.’ Now we got the incinerator, and they can point the finger at the incinerator we never wanted. It’s very frustrating, because this is your home. Nobody can do nothing about it that I can see–and why do we have to pick up and move? If I was doing something here that was causing problems for my neighbors, the villages and everybody would make me stop it or clean up or whatever. Because they’ve got all this money or power they can do what they want? It’s OK?”
In April the city council’s environmental and industrial committee meets to take up Clark’s recent problems and discuss a permit the refinery has requested to allow flood runoff water to flow into the Cal-Sag Channel. Among the board members are Alderman Deiters and Alderman Dale Elton, who used to work for Clark. The audience includes Wiley, Silke, Hoelscher, and Trepanier.
A committee member suggests that the high sulfur content of the crude oil Clark uses is corroding its pipes. Wiley flatly denies that, saying Clark crude is way below the amount of sulfur its pipes have been rated for. Another member has heard a rumor that area hospitals aren’t equipped to handle a hydrofluoric acid leak. Wiley says he’ll check it out. Deiters says he’s heard that high school students have been complaining about a reddish brown substance on the football field that gets on their gym shoes.
“Has anyone called?” says Wiley, who later said he had the substance tested and found out that it was pollen. “This is the first I’ve heard of this. Unless you call, I can’t go and check it out. One of the last meetings I attended, what was said was that ‘this is not pick on Clark, this is not bash Clark.’ I would like for us to have a dialogue. Just like the information that was put out about benzene causing leukemia–I would like for information like that to not be half-truths but information put out so people understand what that means. I can put out a list of chemicals that cause cancer, but what we need to do is be responsible in putting out this information. I think what has happened in the past is that there hasn’t been this dialogue, and there’s some antagonism because of it that’s not necessary. Clark doesn’t have anything to hide.”
“Well, it must have had something to hide,” Deiters says, “because this is the first time we’ve had a chance to talk to someone publicly.”
“That’s not because Clark has had something to hide,” Wiley says.
Trepanier quietly sniggers and makes faces behind Wiley’s back.
“Clark has always been a very low-key company,” says Wiley. “They just kind of minded their own business, even when they did good things–and they’ve done a lot of good things, made a lot of contributions. That’s just been their style, and part of that means they’re quiet. That has not gotten them anywhere. In fact it’s hurt, and we know that. That’s going to change.”
“But when we start asking questions it tightens up again,” Deiters says.
“On my calendar I have on the second Tuesday of every month ‘attend city council meetings,'” Wiley says. “You’re on my schedule. As long as I’m in town I’m gonna be here, and I’m here to address concerns that may have to do with Clark and get you information. I’m not gonna have all the answers. I’m not the environmental engineer.”
“Well,” Deiters says. “If you’re gonna come, I would like to have the plant manager, you, and the environmental engineer, because this is what we always get: ‘I’m not the environmental engineer–you’ll have to ask him that.'”
“For right now, what I’d hoped you’d settle for was I’m your contact,” says Wiley. “You haven’t had the open dialogue in the past. I’m the contact, and I will get you the information.”
“If we get it right from the horse’s mouth and get the data facts, I think it will stop a lot of the scare tactics,” says Elton, who then glares at Trepanier. “I noticed Lionel back there going like this and making faces. Lionel, have you ever worked for a refinery?”
“Well,” Trepanier says, removing from his pocket the letter the CEO of Clark sent him earlier this year. “I do want a response from Clark as to whether they’re the most polluting refinery with regard to SO2.”
“Have you ever worked in a refinery?” Elton says.
“I have a letter from the president of Clark–”
“Wait,” says Deiters. “The question was, have you ever worked for a refinery?”
“Well, I was recently at the Clark refinery.”
“No, the question was still, have you ever worked in a refinery?”
“I haven’t been paid by a refinery,” Trepanier snarls.
Deiters gestures to Elton. “He has worked at a refinery.”
“Oh, he has been paid by a refinery,” Trepanier says, smiling. “If I might continue. I recall the last time Clark was at a committee meeting we put some questions to Clark, and they were going to return with answers and never returned with answers. I just wanted to make the committee aware that I have received a letter from the president of Clark dated January 22, 1997. In the letter the president says he’s concerned about the boycott and believes that we have incomplete or inaccurate information that Clark is the most polluting per gallon of gasoline. But the president goes on to say that his people are reviewing the available information and will share their results with us when they’re available. Now it’s two months later, and there’s still no response to that question: Is Clark the most polluting in the nation per gallon of gasoline?”
“Lionel’s question has changed twice since I heard it the first time it was asked,” says an exasperated Wiley. “The claim to me was that we were the largest polluter in terms of SO2 per barrel of oil. Now the question is, are we the worst polluter in the nation? First off, we are not, we don’t have the most SO2 per barrel. He knows that now. The worst polluter of any refinery? Polluting what? What are we talking about here?”
“Then I will put the question to you,” Deiters says. “In comparison to 160 refineries in the United States, where do you stand as far as SO2 emissions per barrel of oil? I don’t think I can get much more specific than that.”
“But what you’re asking–you’re not going to be able to collect that data overnight,” Wiley says, shrugging. “You’re not going to be able to collect that data in six, eight weeks.”
“The EPA should,” Deiters says.
“Yeah,” says Wiley. “But when you talk about SO2, you also gotta compare with each of the refineries. What are the products? Is it mostly diesel? Are they making high-octane gasoline? Depends on the product. You can have more or less. You gotta gather a lot of data, and you gotta be very specific on what you’re asking.”
“Of the 160 plants that produce fuel, how many of those produce the same types of products that Clark does?” asks Deiters.
“At the same barrels of oil per day?” Wiley asks. “I’ll have to look.”
“Not barrels per day. Just the same product.”
“We’ll have to look. That’s a tough question. I doubt there’s anybody who could answer that question off the top of their head.”
At this moment Anna Stange, Trepanier’s sister, interrupts. “I want to make a point as a resident of Blue Island. It doesn’t matter to me whether this company is producing high-octane gasoline, whether it’s regular gasoline, whether it’s diesel. What matters is what’s coming out. The original question was, what is the total amount of SO2 in relation to the other 160 refineries in the continental United States. And to me it would be rather a small point to say, ‘Let’s look at the one or two or five other refineries in the United States that produce nearly identically the same product at the same rate that Clark does and make that comparison,’ because then I don’t think that’s really answering the question.”
A long silence ensues. Wiley sighs.
“Well,” mutters Deiters, “we do want to know whether you’re high or low. Are you high in comparison to other refineries or are you low? That’s all we need to know. High or low. All these other refineries seem to be low in comparison to Clark.”
“I’ll try to find out,” Wiley says.
The meeting is adjourned.
In early May Wiley is sitting in his office, complaining about a report in the Tribune on Clark’s most recent leak, an estimated few hundred gallons of gasoline from a processing line in mid-April.
“Do you know how many times leaks occur in pipes every day across the United States? Gas lines? Oil lines? Not only residential, but commercial–every day? You find it, you fix it. Here it’s like if we have one, it’s a sin. It’s almost ludicrous sometimes.
“Things get taken out of context, and when stories are written it’s not always the facts. You have a pipeline leak, and all they say is that you have a pipeline leak. There’s nothing that’s written that we’re there 24 hours a day through the snow and 30-below-zero wind-chill factor, and nothing in there talking about how pleased the EPA was with our response. What you read is Clark Oil is plagued with disaster, and they bring up everything that’s ever happened here in the past.
“If this refinery were located out in the middle of a cornfield and we had a fire inside our facility, it wouldn’t be a big news item. But when you’re close to a populated area like we are, people see a fire and that’s sensational. Whether that was something that was minor or major, it doesn’t matter. It’s newsworthy.”
Wiley grimaces as he points out that a recent release of a catalyst at another Illinois refinery that forced nearby residents to evacuate their homes didn’t get nearly the press coverage that Clark’s recent leaks have received. “Nobody wants to talk about the good stuff we do here,” he goes on. “Nobody wants to talk about our annual budget for contributions to scholarships and donations to schools and Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts. How we spend a million six in school taxes, how we try and do all our business locally with local vendors and suppliers and contractors.
“Somebody’s got to make gasoline, right? We happen to make gasoline. The environmental groups will tell you they’re not gonna shut down Clark, but the way they treat things and the way they don’t call you and ask if things are true makes you wonder what their motive is. What is their motive in putting these half-truths out? If it’s to educate the public, why aren’t they more responsible in the data they give? They don’t understand the data, and that’s OK. They’re not chemists. They’re not engineers. That’s fine. Take it to somebody. It doesn’t have to be me. Why wouldn’t they do that? They wouldn’t intentionally put out something that’s wrong, I know that.
“If their goal is to have us put out less emissions, we’re complying with all regulations on emissions, and we’re working on putting out less. But why don’t they talk to us? Maybe because we didn’t talk to them in the past. I don’t know. I’m assuming that. Because if anybody has a question they can come ask, and if I don’t know I’ll find out. That’s what my job is.”
Lionel Trepanier has just returned from checking out an odor over at JLM Chemicals. He says the plant manager told him that the next time he came on JLM grounds without permission he could be subject to arrest.
I ask him what will happen if he succeeds in shutting down the Clark refinery.
He interrupts me and replaces my “if” with a “when.” Then gazing out the window, he says, “What I envision there is a job change. What we’ll build there is a training center, just like they do on sites of abandoned nuclear arsenals. We will train people in how to clean up contaminated sites–and that’s what this community needs, because I’m sure that site is floating in gasoline and benzene and all of these chemicals. People on the south side will be trained in jobs that are needed by this community, jobs that will make these contaminated spaces livable again.”
And after that?
“Well, there’s this incinerator they’ve built over in Robbins. That’s next on the list.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos by Lloyd DeGrane/ Joan Marie Silke; Syd Wiley; the refinery; Lionel Trepanier.