New battlefront for petrochemical industry: benzene and childhood leukemia by Kristen Lombardi for The Center For Public Integrity
ATHENS, Georgia — It was December 29, 1998, six years after Jill McElheney and her family had moved next to a cluster of 12 petroleum storage tanks. Jill was escorting her son Jarrett, then 4, to the doctor again. He had spent the day slumped in a stroller, looking so pale and fatigued that a stranger stopped her to ask if he was all right.
It was an encounter Jill couldn’t shake. For the previous three months, she had noticed her once-energetic preschooler deteriorating. He complained of pain in his knee, which grew excruciating. It migrated to his shoulder and then his leg. His shins swelled, as did his temples. At night, Jarrett awoke drenched in sweat, screaming from spasms. Jill took him to a pediatrician and an infectious-disease specialist. A rheumatologist diagnosed him with anemia.
Now, as Jarrett lay listless, Jill found herself back at the pediatrician’s office. Tests confirmed a blood count so low that she was instructed to get him to an emergency room immediately. Within hours she was at a hospital in Atlanta, some 65 miles from her home in Athens, watching nurses rush in and out of Jarrett’s room. Doctors identified a common form of childhood leukemia. “I heard the words,” Jill recalled, “and I only knew the bald heads and the sadness.”
In the waiting room, family members heard more unsettling news: A neighbor’s child also had developed leukemia.
Days later, Jarrett’s doctor penned a letter to federal environmental regulators about the two cancer patients, highlighting their “close proximity” to Southeast Terminals, a group of 10,000-gallon tanks containing gasoline, diesel and fuel oil.
“Could you please investigate,” the doctor wrote, “whether high levels of chemicals could have contaminated the water, possibly contributing … to the development of leukemia?”
Only then did the McElheneys consider the possibility that living beside one of the nation’s 1,500 bulk-oil terminals — known sources of cancer-causing benzene — had triggered their son’s leukemia.
“It was one of those light-bulb moments for us,” said Jeff McElheney, Jarrett’s father. “You never get over it.”
New battlefront for industry
Jarrett McElheney does not represent the standard benzene plaintiff. He’s not among the hundreds of thousands of people who toil in American oil refineries or other workplaces contaminated with the chemical and run the risk of developing leukemia. In the rancorous world of toxic-tort litigation, he stands virtually alone. A lawsuit filed by his parents in 2011 against Southeast Terminals owners BP and TransMontaigne is among a relatively few alleging leukemia caused by environmental benzene exposure. Among these, the McElheney case is rarer still: Most have hinged on adult leukemia.
Yet the case may signal an emerging quandary for the petrochemical industry, according to tens of thousands of pages of previously secret documents that have come to light in lawsuits filed against benzene manufacturers and suppliers on behalf of those who suffered from leukemia and other blood diseases, including Jarrett McElheney.
Internal memorandums, emails, letters and meeting minutes obtained by the Center for Public Integrity over the past year suggest that BP and four other major petrochemical companies, coordinated by their trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, spent at least $36 million on research “designed to protect member company interests,” as one 2000 API summary put it. Many of the documents chronicle a systematic attempt by the petrochemical industry to influence the science linking benzene to cancer. Others attest to the industry’s longstanding interest in topics such as childhood leukemia.
“A number of publications in the last few years have attempted to link increased risks of childhood leukemia with proximity to both petroleum facilities and local traffic density,” another 2000 API memo warns. “Although these publications have had little impact to date, the emphasis on ‘Children’s Health’ may cause these concerns to resurface.”
“This is indeed a battlefront for the oil industry,” said Peter Infante, a former director of the office that reviews health standards at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who has studied benzene for 40 years and now testifies for plaintiffs in benzene litigation. He has worked on a handful of cases involving children sickened by leukemia.
“It’s in the industry’s economic interests to refuse to acknowledge the relationship between benzene and childhood leukemia,” Infante said.
In May, in a sign of the chemical’s continuing threat, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 5 million Americans — excluding workers — face heightened cancer risks from benzene and 68 other carcinogens spewed into the air by the nation’s 149 oil refineries. The EPA has proposed a rule that would require refinery operators to monitor for benzene, in particular, along their fence lines.
Aimed at curbing “fugitive” emissions from equipment leaks and similar releases, the proposal would set a fence line limit for benzene of 3 parts per billion — a fraction of the 10 ppb the agency recommends as the maximum chronic exposure level for the chemical.
Industry groups are pushing back. In written comments, the API’s Matthew Todd called the proposal “a major and significant Agency action [that] will dramatically increase the paperwork and recordkeeping burden on refineries. It includes several precedent-setting proposals, will cost our industry hundreds of millions of dollars per year, increase safety risk [and] may impact fuels production and cost …. Production outages will likely occur.”
The EPA also heard from the people the rule is designed to protect. “We live near a refinery, and as a result my son can’t breathe,” a woman from Fontana, California, wrote in Spanish. “My cousin had respiratory problems while living near a refinery for more than 10 years,” a woman from Houston wrote, also in Spanish. “Unfortunately, he died 2 years ago from bone cancer. We believe this was a result of the ambient air where he lived.”
In June, California officials lowered the long-term exposure level for benzene from 20 ppb to 1 ppb — among the lowest in the country — setting the stage for further emissions cuts at refineries and bulk-oil terminals in that state. Officials say such regulatory actions aim to protect children, who are more susceptible to benzene’s toxic effects than adults because their cells aren’t as developed. California is considering classifying benzene not just as a human carcinogen, but as a “toxic air contaminant which may disproportionately impact children.”
“The fact that benzene impacts the blood-forming organs when you’re a developing child is a big deal,” said Melanie Marty of the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.
ill McElheney agrees. A warm, garrulous mother of five who has schooled herself in the health effects of pollution, she has spent the past 16 years seeking the cause of her son’s leukemia. She has filed open-records requests and contacted state and federal agencies, piecing together a history of gasoline spills and diesel-fuel leaks at Southeast Terminals. She can cite endless details about lingering benzene contamination on terminal property — extensively catalogued in state enforcement files — located “a stone’s throw away” from the trailer park where her family lived for seven years.
Jeff, Jarrett and Jill McElheney stand in the former site of the Oakwood Mobile Home Park, where the family was living when Jarrett was diagnosed with a form of childhood leukemia. Phil Skinner for the Center for Public Integrity
Now vacant and overgrown with brush, the former site of the Oakwood Mobile Home Park lies across a residential street from Southeast Terminals, its tanks rising above a thicket of pines and oaks. All day, every day, trucks drive in and out of the facility’s gates, filling tankers with gasoline and other products.
What can’t be seen is the plume of benzene that has worked its way into the groundwater beneath the tanks. “It’s not like Cancer Alley, with smokestacks belching crap in your face,” Jill said. “It’s hidden — literally.”
When she and Jeff moved to Oakwood in 1992, they saw the 14-trailer community as something of an oasis — quiet, tight-knit. Nestled under shady trees, near churches and schools, it seemed like the perfect location. Even the park’s water supply, drawn from an unpermitted well dating back decades, appeared idyllic: Its pump house served as a beacon on park property, visible for all to see — including, court depositions later confirmed, terminal employees.
“We saw Oakwood as an opportunity,” recalled Jeff, a mustachioed, genial man who operates a roofing company and managed the park for his father, its previous owner.
Jarrett McElheney, center, with 3 of his 4 siblings. Courtesy of the McElheney family
Jarrett arrived two years later and, by his fourth birthday, had grown into an adventurous boy with an abiding love of water. His parents remember him splashing in the tub for hours. Often, he swam in an inflatable pool in their yard, dressed in what he called his “little blue [wet] suit.” He slurped on Kool Aid and popsicles made from well water whose purity his parents never questioned — until his 1998 diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, a form of the blood cancer found overwhelmingly in children.
Within days of hearing the news, Jarrett’s parents tested their water. Samples from the Oakwood well revealed a brew of such chemicals as carbon tetrachloride and 1,2-dichloroethane, sparking a state investigation. The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) found benzene in the water of Oakwood’s well at levels up to 13 ppb — 26 times higher than the federal safety standard. In response, the agency shuttered the well and connected residents to public water.
Over the next year, state geologists worked to identify the contamination’s source. They dug monitoring wells and collected soil samples. Their initial investigation linked at least one pollutant in the park well — not benzene — to nearby abandoned grain silos. Geologists eventually eyed Southeast Terminals as a likely source of the benzene contamination, records show.
“The terminals are certainly suspects for the benzene detected in the [Oakwood] well,” one posited in a 2000 email. “The probable path is deep ground water.”
Another noted the presence of “a possible plume (with benzene) moving by Oakwood … and within a few hundred feet of the [park]’s former well, [thus] too close for comfort for a public-water supply well.”
Two years later, EPD investigators were still documenting high levels of benzene, ranging from 8,000 to 12,000 ppb, on terminal property — as well as the likelihood that, one 2002 EPD memorandum states, “the benzene contamination found in the trailer park well came from the Southeast Terminals.”
Ultimately, though, the state’s two-year, nearly $200,000 investigation yielded few answers. By 2008, groundwater monitoring results revealed only trace amounts of benzene at Oakwood. Today, EPD officials say they lack definitive proof tying the well’s benzene pollution to any source.
For Jill McElheney, the outcome of the inquiry was anything but satisfying. “It just seems to me that when you’ve got benzene in a well and a major source of it next door, you’d make the connection,” she said.
In fact, Jill already had been seeking answers elsewhere. In 2000, she turned to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, petitioning it for a public health assessment. Instead, the agency launched a less-thorough public health consultation, meant to ascertain the risk to human health posed by the contaminated well water at Oakwood.
The results brought little clarity. In a 2001 report, the ATSDR determined that “the groundwater contaminant plume” initially sampled in the Oakwood well “is a public health hazard.” At the same time, it singled out a pollutant other than benzene as the threat. For benzene, the agency found that “the likelihood someone would get cancer as a result of their exposure is very low.”
In a 2000 draft filed with the state, however, the ATSDR concluded that the highest concentrations of benzene in the water were of concern. “This risk DOES exceed an acceptable risk level,” the draft states, “and may result in an elevated risk of cancer for exposed individuals.”
An ASTDR spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
Mounting evidence on benzene and leukemia
The science linking benzene to cancer — particularly leukemia, in all its forms — has preoccupied the petrochemical industry for more than half a century. As far back as 1948, the API’s toxicological profile of the chemical discussed “reasonably well documented instances of the development of leukemia as a result of chronic benzene exposure,” cautioning that “the only absolutely safe concentration … is zero.”
Later, as scientific evidence of benzene’s hazards accumulated and regulatory limits on workplace and environmental levels tightened, the industry took a different stance. By 1990, the API and member companies such as BP, Chevron, Mobil and Shell had launched a research program meant to keep further restrictions at bay — or, minutes from an API meeting in 1992 state, research “that will be most useful in improving risk assessment and influencing regulation.”
Within months, the API task force overseeing the program was enumerating “developing issues.” Topping its list, according to minutes from a meeting in 1993, was this notation: “link to childhood leukemia?”
That possible link appeared on the industry’s radar again in 2000, documents show. At the time, API representatives were drumming up financial support for an unparalleled study of workers exposed to benzene in Shanghai, China, delivering what amounted to a sales pitch for the project. They touted what one 2000 API overview described as its “tremendous economic benefit to the petroleum industry” — helping to combat “onerous regulations” and “litigation costs due to perceptions about the risks of even very low exposures to benzene.” Childhood leukemia was mentioned explicitly.
Five years later, industry representatives grew concerned enough to bankroll their own research. Documents show the API task force approved funding for what minutes of one meeting in 2005 dubbed a “benzene regulatory response,” comprising a “childhood leukemia review” and “child-to-adult sensitivity to benzene” analysis, for a total of $30,000.
By then, the scientific evidence on benzene and leukemia in adults was well-established. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, studies of Italian shoe and leather workers indicated a relationship between the chemical and the cancer. Then, in 1977, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, launched a seminal study of two Goodyear plants in Ohio that made Pliofilm, a thin rubber wrap. The research quantified for the first time the leukemia risk for workers exposed to benzene, prompting OSHA to work on a stricter standard that took effect in 1987.
In years since, the science has solidified. Recent research has shown lower and lower levels of the chemical — less than the OSHA limit of 1 part per million — can cause leukemia as well as other blood and bone marrow disorders.
By contrast, experts say, the research on benzene and childhood leukemia isn’t as conclusive. Multiple studies have indicated that children whose mothers were exposed to benzene-containing solvents during pregnancy experience elevated risks of developing the disease. Others have shown that children living near gas stations or highways — breathing in benzene in the air — face heightened risks. One 2008 study reported a significant spike in the rate of the disease in Houston neighborhoods with the highest benzene emissions.
Taken together, the nearly four dozen publications on the topic strongly suggest the carcinogen can cause leukemia as much in children as adults, experts say.
“Children aren’t another species,” said Infante, the former OSHA official who has reviewed the scientific literature for medical associations and governmental agencies. “If benzene causes leukemia in adults, why wouldn’t it cause leukemia in children?”
The scientist behind the API-commissioned analysis would likely disagree. In 2009, David Pyatt, a Colorado toxicologist with long-standing ties to the petrochemical industry, published a journal article about his review, in which he reported examining 236 studies on the relationship between benzene and childhood leukemia. Many of the studies suggesting a link “suffer from the same limitations,” he concluded, such as poorly quantified exposure estimates.
“At this point,” Pyatt wrote, “there is insufficient epidemiologic support for an association or causal connection between environmental benzene exposure … and the development of childhood [leukemia].”
Some say the review reflects a common industry tactic: Compile studies on a subject, and then shed doubt on each one by claiming the data aren’t good enough.
Pyatt did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls from the Center seeking comment; nor did the API.
In depositions, Pyatt acknowledged that he has never testified for a plaintiff in a benzene exposure case. He has worked as a consultant and defense expert for such petrochemical giants as BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell, he has said; the API has financed additional work of his on benzene, as has the American Chemistry Council, the chemical industry’s main lobby.
In a deposition taken last year, Pyatt said he wouldn’t discount benzene’s link to childhood leukemia — at least, not to acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a type rarely found in children.
“There is no reason to think that [children] are going to be protected,” he testified. “So I would certainly think that a child can develop AML if they are exposed to enough benzene.”
In other depositions, Pyatt has conceded no link between benzene and ALL, the type that attacked Jarrett McElheney.
‘They have to stop this practice’
For the McElheneys, the extent of the benzene contamination from Southeast Terminals only came to light years after Jarrett’s chemotherapy regimen had beaten back his leukemia. Yet state and federal enforcement records pinpoint on-site releases of the chemical in 1991, a year before the family moved to the area. At the time, managers of the terminal — jointly owned and operated by BP and Unocal Corp. — discovered a leak of diesel fuel seeping through soil where an underground pipeline was buried.
Terminal employees removed 40 cubic yards of “petroleum contaminated soils,” according to a report filed by BP with the state, and recorded benzene on site at levels as high as 81 ppb. Groundwater samples showed even higher concentrations: 12,000 ppb.
State regulators found such pollution “exceeds our ‘trigger’ levels,” a 1991 letter to the company states, and requested further action.
Under Georgia law, the company was required to develop what the EPD calls a “corrective action plan,” which, among other things, would have delineated the terminal’s benzene plume, as well as identified nearby public water wells.
In a 1991 reply, BP promised the EPD it would file its plan in four months.
Nine years later — after the McElheneys had tested their well water and the EPD had issued a 2000 citation against BP for failing to submit a “timely” corrective action plan — the company finally carried out that requirement, records show.
BP, in charge of the terminal’s daily operations, declined to comment for this article. At different times, Unocal, Louis Dreyfus Energy and TransMontaigne have been BP’s partners at the site. TransMontaigne, its current partner, did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls. TransMontaigne purchased Louis Dreyfus Energy in 1998. Chevron, which merged with Unocal in 2005, declined to comment.
Today, state regulators attribute their own delay in cracking down on the diesel leak to an internal debate over which EPD division had authority over the terminal’s benzene contamination — its underground storage tank program, which has purview over the pipeline; or, its hazardous waste branch. For years, compliance officers in that branch, along with their counterparts at the EPA, had been monitoring the facility’s practice of dumping benzene-laced wastewater on site — a practice later confirmed by terminal employees in court depositions.
In 1990, the EPA issued new rules classifying benzene as hazardous waste and requiring bulk-oil terminals to have permits for discharging the “bottoms water” in petroleum tanks. This wastewater can become tainted by the chemical when mixed with gasoline. Rather than treat the water, Southeast Terminals funneled it through an “oil/water separator” to skim off fuel, and then dumped it into a ditch on the ground.
Company records at the time show that terminal supervisors admitted they drained the wastewater “direct into streams” or “a dike area which eventually drains offsite into a stream.”
“I remember thinking, ‘They have to stop this practice,’” said John Williams, an EPD environmental specialist who inspected the terminal in 1993 and documented the dumping.
Three months later, the EPD issued a notice of violation against Southeast Terminals, forcing supervisors to test the bottoms water. Regulators found benzene at levels four times greater than the legal limit of 0.5 ppb, prompting the EPA to take action.
“We saw an issue there,” said Darryl Hines, of the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta, explaining why officials initiated a 1997 civil enforcement action against the facility.
In its complaint, the EPA accused BP and then-partner Louis Dreyfus Energy of violating federal hazardous-waste law — disposing waste without a permit, and failing to categorize it as hazardous. The agency ordered the companies to shut down the oil/water separator, and implement a plan addressing “any groundwater contamination.”
By the time Jarrett developed leukemia a year later, the EPA had negotiated a settlement with the companies and laid out a series of requirements for cleaning up the benzene. Without admitting fault, BP and Louis Dreyfus agreed to spend at least $100,000 to remove leaking underground pipelines and install above-ground infrastructure. They also paid a penalty of $15,000.
When BP finally filed its long-delayed action plan, it revealed the presence of what EPD project officer Calvin Jones described as a “dissolved hydrocarbon” plume containing benzene — “a bigger problem than we had thought.” The chemical, concentrated at 500 ppb and counting, had spread beyond the immediate spill areas. Of greater concern to regulators, the plan identified “free product” in groundwater.
“There was actually gasoline floating on the water,” explained Jones, of the EPD’s underground storage tank program, who oversaw the facility’s protracted cleanup. Referring to gasoline’s ability to dissolve in water, he said, “You can’t get higher concentrations of benzene … than free product.”
Despite a decade-long cleanup — 35.2 million gallons of contaminated groundwater and 1,009 pounds of benzene were collected — the chemical still saturates much of the nearly 19-acre Southeast Terminals site, records show. Last year, the EPD issued a letter declaring “no further action required,” which released the companies from remediation. At the time, the state-sanctioned benzene count remained at 1,440 ppb.
Over the years, enforcement records show, company consultants and regulators alike have tried to trace the path of the wastewater at the terminal. One company analysis details a trail beginning at the property line and then spilling into adjacent woods before hitting a tributary. Another document, produced by the EPA, depicts the discharge as moving offsite through woods and into a resident’s backyard.
“It’s where the drainage flows,” said Jeffrey Pallas, deputy director of the agency’s hazardous waste division in Atlanta, who oversaw the case against BP and Louis Dreyfus, explaining that the document, complete with photographs, was only intended to verify the hazardous-waste law violations.
“We cannot substantiate from the documentation we have that the benzene left the site,” he said.
The McElheneys have seen the evidence they need to connect Southeast Terminals to the benzene in the Oakwood well — and Jarrett’s suffering. They believe all the state and federal enforcement actions have yielded few consequences for the facility’s owners. If Jarrett hadn’t gotten sick, they say, they might never have known about the benzene hazard. “The companies would have paid off their small fines,” Jill said, “and nobody would have been the wiser.”
Seeking some accountability, the family filed a lawsuit three years ago against BP, TransMontaigne and seven other previous owners, alleging that the “illegal discharge and release of toxic chemicals” at Southeast Terminals contaminated the surrounding environment and caused Jarrett to develop leukemia.
In court filings, the companies denied the allegations and dismissed any link between benzene and childhood leukemia. Last year, defense lawyers invoked a familiar tactic: They cited the Pyatt review to support their claims that the chemical couldn’t have caused Jarrett’s illness. The family recently has agreed on a settlement in principle and is working toward resolving the litigation.
“I thought, ‘This is par for the course,’” said Jill, who has read some of the industry documents uncovered by the lawsuit. “The oil industry has fought regulations and lawsuits for workers and adults. Now they’re going to do it with children.”
Jarrett is now a slight, reserved 20-year-old in remission. He remembers his bout with leukemia through a child’s eyes — the “really cool” ambulance rides, the nurses with coloring books, swinging golf clubs in hospital hallways. “I remember being stuck over and over again by needles” while getting a bone-marrow aspiration or a chest catheter or countless blood draws, he said. “But it wasn’t until much later I realized what happened to me didn’t happen to other kids.”
Today, he has had to grapple with cancer’s lasting effects — the feebleness, and the fatigue — as well as its lingering fears. As a leukemia survivor, he is at risk for developing osteoporosis, cataracts, or even another cancer. Sitting in an Olive Garden in Athens, sandwiched between his parents, Jarrett came across as exceedingly shy, uncomfortable in the limelight. Often, his parents did the speaking for him.
Moments earlier, Jill had explained how leukemia had changed her son, taken an emotional toll.
“He had a really loud voice as a toddler but that voice has mellowed,” she said. “I’ll take that voice over anything.”
Maryam Jameel contributed to this story.
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