Benzene can have a devastating impact on human health over the long term, especially to workers who are exposed to even the smallest levels of it. But the chemical can also have an extremely toxic effect on communities in proximity to oil and gas refineries, as a recent $5 million federal case shows.
U.S. Judge Nancy Rosenstengel ordered Shell Oil and ConocoPhillips to settle a class action Feb. 23 brought by hundreds of people living in and around the city of Roxana, Illinois., a community just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri. The claimants alleged that the companies released benzene into the ground, contaminating the groundwater and driving property values down.
Judge Rosenstengel approved a settlement in which Shell and the other defendants agreed to pay about $5 million in damages, stating the amount “adequately and fairly encompasses those properties situated above and adjacent to the groundwater contamination that is the subject of this action and that may have experienced a decrease in value as a result of the groundwater contamination,” according to the Madison-St. Clair Record.
The lawsuit was filed in 2012 by attorneys for class representative Jeana Parko, who alleged that Shell’s Wood River refinery allowed 18 benzene spills over a 25-year period of time. Collectively, these spills amounted to more than 200,000 pounds of benzene.
Benzene is a known carcinogen. Exposure to the chemical over the long-term causes anemia and acute myeloid leukemia. There is also substantial evidence that benzene exposure causes acute and chronic lymphocytic leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Individuals who have experienced benzene poisoning requiring treatment show a substantially increased risk of mortality from leukemia, according to the World Health Organization.
The class-action also accused Shell of releasing other toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including toluene and ethylbenzene.
According to the Madison-St. Clair Record, Shell was ordered to pay up to a maximum of $4.48 million and Conoco Phillips was ordered to pay $350,000.
The order, the judge noted, excludes future claims for personal injury and wrongful death tied to the benzene pollution.