Going After Ashland Oil

Ginger Sanders, like a lot of Pine Bend area residents, believes her home is in the middle of a cancer cluster, but officials from industry and the state say they see no problem.

The walk hasn't been shoveled for a while around Ginger Sanders's house, and there's a black-and-orange KEEP OUT sign by the door. Windows stare empty across the backyard toward the huge white tank 200 feet away.

"That's the one where they had the spill last month," Sanders says. Some 50,000 gallons of crude seeped from a broken valve there in January, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. They're still working on picking up the oil-drenched slush.

The tanks belong to Ashland Oil, whose refinery a few miles away makes 68,000 gallons of crude each day into SuperAmerica gasoline, heating fuel, and asphalt. The oil comes by pipeline from North Dakota and Canada. Just before going into the plant it stops at the tank farm just off Granada Avenue in Cottage Grove.

The tanks were built in 1956, four years after Orrin Thompson threw up this subdivision. Sanders bought the little house in 1988 for herself and her five-year-old daughter. She noticed the smell--it hangs over Granada today, heavy yet elusive, like a whiff of fresh blacktop from the highway--but didn't think much of it.

The health problems began, Sanders says, shortly after she moved in. Her ears, nose, and throat burned when she walked into the house. She got headaches, had "a lot of female problems," and her kidneys hurt. Her daughter developed bronchospasms; foster children who stayed at the house started coughing.

Sanders couldn't figure it out. Her doctors said her illnesses were consistent with exposure to hazardous chemicals. But where they came from, they couldn't say. She bought test kits to check for toxins in the house. They showed elevated levels of things she had to look up in the dictionary--anhydrous ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, hydrazine.

But it wasn't until she started talking to the neighbors that Sanders got scared. There was cancer, she says, in every other house. Kids had asthma; adults got inexplicable headaches. Some of the old-timers told her they'd been fighting the tank farm for years. When she called the MPCA, the state Department of Health, her legislators, they said they knew about the problem and couldn't do much.

She approached Ashland. "The guy told me, 'Here's what I'm going to do for you: I'm going to send two of my best nose sniffers.' These guys came to my house, and they're walking through going, 'Can you smell something? I can't.' And when they walked back out through that door, I said, I've had it. I have a very short fuse."

In December 1995, Sanders joined two dozen other Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, and Newport residents to sue Ashland Oil. Their lawyer was Kenneth McClain from Independence, Missouri, who's won $90 million in damages in similar lawsuits around the country. The firm was hoping, they told the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time, to settle the case at some point.

Soon after that Sanders left her house, moving clear across the metro to Big Lake. Her health has been "98 percent better" since, she says; her daughter is off the inhaler and can now play a full game of hockey. But she keeps coming back to Cottage Grove, where she's helped organize a citizens group. Last Wednesday the group held its coming-out rally; the featured speaker was Lois Gibbs, whose discovery of a toxic dump under her Love Canal, New York neighborhood 25 years ago helped to give the environmental movement a mainstream presence.

Like Gibbs, who remains active long after she and her neighbors were evacuated from Love Canal, Sanders says she's past the point of letting go. The lawyers, she says, have told her that they "want to keep this quiet. But I don't think we have the right. I think this whole street needs to be taken out. Ashland has to buy those houses and move the people. And then, something has to happen over at the refinery. I know. I grew up here."

It's a short drive to the refinery, along an I-94 frontage road that dips past machine shops and old farm houses into downtown St. Paul Park. Jim's Corner Bar, the American Legion hall, and Carbone's Pizza take up three corners of the intersection. The fourth holds a sign showing a sunset-lake-and-trees landscape, plus the Ashland logo. Behind it looms a forbidding stand of pipes, towers, and tanks.

The house where Sanders grew up sits just on the other side of the Newport city line, 300 feet from the refinery's fence. Inside are walls full of pink flowers and shelves with photos of children (nine) and grandchildren (27). A soft hum emanates from a speaker-size box on the floor. That's an air cleaner, explains Sanders's mother, Norma; she just got it, and it seems to work wonders. "You know when you go outside just after a rain? That's how it smells."

It was the smell outside that almost kept the family from moving here 21 years ago, Norma Sanders says. "But people kept saying you get used to it." For a while there were other things to worry about. Three times in the first few years the family was evacuated because of trouble at the refinery. "They had fires--one of those tanks burned, right in the front. And spills, lots of spills."

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