Going After Ashland Oil

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."

Indeed. Since 1975, Ashland has reported major leaks from pipes, tanks, and trucks more than 170 times; just three years ago, some 100,000 gallons escaped from a tank. Most of the "free product," as engineers refer to it, went into the Mississippi River, on whose bank the refinery sits. But about 2 million gallons still floats on top of the aquifer beneath the refinery, in a "plume" between two and eight feet deep. That aquifer is the Prairie du Chien/Jordan, which feeds most of the wells in the eastern metro area.

Yet it wasn't until 1989 that regulators took notice. That year, some Department of Natural Resources staffers told the MPCA they'd found oil slicks in the ecologically crucial backwaters of the Mississippi. Within two days the MPCA issued a "Declaration of Emergency." Ashland staved off further action by agreeing to install a system of drainage ditches. Some 300,000 gallons of oil have been pumped out since then. Millions more remain.

Spills aren't the only problem. Ashland's waste water treatment facility dumps almost 2 million gallons into the river each year. For years, according to the MPCA, that liquid held higher-than-permitted levels of chemicals toxic to fish, plants, and humans. The agency sent Ashland notices of violation in 1991, '92 and '93; the company finally fixed the treatment plant in 1994.

And then there's the air--the air that in the summer often forces Norma Sanders to drop her gardening and head inside, the air that carries the same heavy smell as in Cottage Grove, but on certain days also brings a sweet, sickly odor or the stench of rotten eggs. No one knows for sure what's behind those smells--or, for that matter, what else comes out of Ashland's stacks. With the exception of about a dozen substances, those emissions are not covered by state or federal environmental laws.

In the summer of 1994, the MPCA set up a couple of monitoring stations around the refinery to test for petroleum-related pollutants. They found that "the outdoor air contained high levels of benzene, xylene, toluene, and ethylbenzene on days when the winds were from the east-southeast." Levels of the chemicals--which can cause cancer, respiratory problems, and reproductive damage--were up to 100 times higher than what the Minnesota Department of Health recommends for long-term exposure. The most likely source, the MPCA said, was the refinery's truck-loading station.

In 1995, Ashland announced that it was rebuilding the loading area with state-of-the-art technology. The company has also been paying for the MPCA to continue its air monitoring, albeit at a station farther away from the plant. For the last quarter of 1996, levels of benzene at the Newport station still averaged three times higher than the proposed Department of Health standards.

That, however, is not illegal; no statute requires Ashland to make sure its neighbors breathe clean air. The company is working with the MPCA on a "stipulation agreement" under which it is fixing pipes and tanks and continuing to pump out and dig up toxic water and soil. Ashland and the agency are also working on a new air-emissions permit for the company, slated for public notice in March. Officials say Ashland has made sufficient progress to warrant waiving tens of thousands of dollars in fines. They also note that where the refinery once averaged a spill each month, it now has a mere two or three a year.

Company executives, for their part, say they're planning to do better yet. "We have a three-pronged philosophy here," says Jim Nelson, the refinery's manager. "We want to take care of ourselves, which means running the plant so that all our employees operate safely. Secondly, we want to take care of our neighbors. We've adopted the slogan that we want to run this refinery as if it was in everyone's backyard. And third, we want to take care of our stockholders, so that we can deliver a good return on their investment."

Asked what he thinks of the complaints from Sanders and others, Nelson says the company is "very sensitive" to the concerns. "But we have no reason to believe that there are any health impacts from this refinery."

State officials, it seems, would agree. Residents of the Pine Bend area--the industrial stretch which besides Ashland includes the Koch Refinery, 3M, more manufacturing plants, Superfund sites, and landfills--have long claimed that they're suffering from record rates of birth defects, cancer, and respiratory diseases. But the Minnesota Department of Health says it can't prove that, and won't try. Statistical variation, the experts argue, makes it hard to pinpoint disease "clusters" in individual communities. And it's hard to fix blame for specific illnesses on any particular contaminant.  

In 1996, the department released a health assessment for the Ashland refinery, which concluded that people in the area were probably exposed to a variety of toxins through air, water, and soil. But, the document said, there was "little or no possibility of documenting a relationship between community health and pollutants in the refinery. Therefore MDH does not anticipate conducting a community health study in this area in the near future."

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