The bulldozer clawed at the East Texas earth, uprooting an old, abandoned gas pipeline beneath the site of a new mobile home park and, in the process, uncovering something more. The soil released a strange, powerful odor that burned throats, turned stomachs and hung in the air for weeks.
LUFKIN, Texas — The bulldozer clawed at the East Texas earth, uprooting an old, abandoned gas pipeline beneath the site of a new mobile home park and, in the process, uncovering something more. The soil released a strange, powerful odor that burned throats, turned stomachs and hung in the air for weeks.
Developer David Frankens and his crew exhumed a 70-year-old pipeline, rusted the color of Tang in some parts and pimpled with crude welds intended to plug leaks.
"I've worked around pipeline before in several subdivisions and I've never seen anything like this in my life," said Frankens. "It's amazing that they were sending gas through this line."
The discovery back in the spring of 2002 became a revelation for many locals, who had long been suspicious of the bald spots in their lawns, the sour stench in their vegetable gardens and decades of unexplained illness, including rare forms of leukemia.
When people started complaining about the odor at the site, Frankens said, Chevron Pipe Line Co. quickly smelled trouble.
Chevron first ordered Frankens to stop digging and then, after sending workers in white hazardous materials suits to the property, the company bought his land, complete with four mobile homes he'd already built and sold.
Chevron then went next door and bought the four acres where Jan Luce and her family lived for 16 years.
Luce's bladder had been bleeding for more than a decade, and the lining of her 30-year-old son's stomach was inflamed most of his life, she said. Nearly every member of the family suffered chronic nausea, vomiting, severe fatigue, nose bleeds, and throbbing headaches. Even the family cats lost hair and vomited so often a veterinarian diagnosed "chemical overload," Luce said. Two of them died.
Doctors in Houston and in Lufkin asked her if she could be poisoned.
"They would tell me ... 'something is making you ill' and, basically, `if you want to live, you need to leave,'" Luce said. "I just was saying, 'Lord, what's wrong with my family? Why are we so ill?'"
She got her answer, she said, when Chevron knocked at the door. The company told her they were testing for benzene and other toxins.
Studies have associated short-term benzene exposure with anemia and problems with nervous and immune systems. Long-term exposure can cause leukemia, reproductive problems and blood disorders, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Luce and her husband quickly sold their land to Chevron, moved to Kentucky and became the first plaintiffs in a growing lawsuit that accuses the oil company of hiding decades of contamination along a 20-mile pipeline that snaked beneath downtown buildings, residential neighborhoods, churches and an elementary school.
The pipeline leaked so frequently, the lawsuit claims, repairmen nicknamed it the "sprinkler system."
Lufkin was born of railroad and timber in the late 1880s, but raised on petroleum.
Nearly everyone in the town of 33,000 knows somebody who works in oil fields or refineries, or on the pipelines. About 120 miles north of Houston, it's not a place that normally takes kindly to lawsuits, especially when they're against big oil companies that sign the paychecks that keep an ailing region alive.
But so far, nearly 300 property owners in Angelina County have joined the lawsuit against Chevron, alleging the company knew the old leaks polluted soil, groundwater and air with benzene, lead and other harmful chemicals. Rather than clean it up and alert authorities, the lawsuit claims Chevron abandoned the pipeline in the late 1980s and built a new one several miles away.
Most of the plaintiffs are either sick or represent estates of people who died from illnesses they attribute to the pipeline, said Lufkin city attorney Bob Flournoy, who brought the lawsuit. He recently handed over the case to the Beaumont firm of Walter Umphrey, one of the five private attorneys who won Texas' $17 billion tobacco settlement.
Chevron officials deny wrongdoing and say there's no evidence linking residents' health problems to the pipeline.
"So far, our test results and our data show that these allegations are just unfounded," Chevron spokesman Mickey Driver said. Chevron denies it tried to conceal contamination.
Driver said Chevron inherited the aging pipeline from Gulf Oil in a 1985 merger. Rather than continue to repair it piecemeal, as Gulf had done, Chevron decided to shut it down in 1986 and build a new pipeline outside of town, away from residents, Driver said.
Chevron cleaned and purged the old line, as required by law, and excavated much of it, he said.
Plaintiffs like Mary Stovall don't accept that explanation.
"If they were so careless in buying a line that was so corroded, that's their own problem," said Stovall, who has met with Chevron officials and conducted her own investigation. "They didn't do their homework, or worse than that, they did do their homework and they didn't care."
The city of Lufkin closed a public park in 2003 after city testing found elevated levels of benzene in groundwater a block away -- one test found 12,660 parts per billion, compared with a protective level of just 5 parts per billion, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The city had leased Gulf Park for $1 a month from Gulf, then Chevron, since 1972.
Chevron's own testing at the mobile home site starting in 2002 -- about 15 years after the pipeline shut down -- found benzene in the groundwater at levels as high as six times the protective limit for that site.
"I was just so blown away, hurt, angry and mad as hell," said Stovall. "It's not in remote fields, where it could affect two houses. It's in highly populated areas."
The state ordered Chevron to do extensive testing at eight sites in the county where contaminants exceed state standards in residential areas. Chevron has completed testing only at the mobile home site, now a vacant lot, and excavated some of the contaminated soil.
Stovall complained that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has failed in its oversight, by not demanding a speedy cleanup or full disclosure about contaminated sites.
"It's level upon level, layer upon layer of bureaucracy. I think the corporations, they depend on that," said Stovall, a mother of two. "They're just systematically designed to allow Chevron to call the shots."
The state agency said it allows Chevron to investigate itself because it lacks the manpower and money to do its own reviews in the 2,000 corrective action cases it's currently handling.
"It's financially impossible to do that," said Jason Wang, TCEQ corrective action supervisor. "So we put the burden on the responsible party. Since they caused the pollution, we make them spend the money and do the investigation."
Thomas McGarity, a University of Texas law professor and longtime observer of TCEQ, said the Legislature underfunds the agency, in part because of the power of the petroleum industry here.
"There are states that would make Chevron clean up a bunch, but Texas isn't one of them," McGarity said.
Legal and environmental toxicology experts say plaintiffs will have a hard time proving the pipeline caused their health problems.
Americans are exposed to benzene every day through air pollution, smoking and pumping gas, they note, and so it's generally hard to pin an illness on one source of exposure. And since most benzene research is occupational, little is known about the effects of benzene outside the workplace.
"I'm not saying that there isn't something going on here. I'm just saying that it's very difficult to prove it and people's perceptions of what's going on (are) not necessarily true," said Martyn Smith, a toxicology professor at the University of California Berkeley.
McGarity said he's never heard of plaintiffs recovering awards for health problems blamed on benzene exposure outside the workplace but added that companies usually settle such cases out of court rather than gamble on a jury that could sympathize with plaintiffs.
"There probably are some people who are getting harmed, but the law makes it difficult for any individual to recover," he said.
The lawsuit seeks to make Chevron pay the unspecified costs for cleanup, medical bills, lost property value, pain and suffering and a list of other alleged damages.
"Most of the people in this lawsuit are not people out there looking for a fast buck," said plaintiff Kittie Bounds, a church secretary who lives along the pipeline route and suffers headaches, digestive problems and fatigue.
"They're people who are good, solid citizens of this community who do not like what's happened. We love our town. We don't want it to kill people when they come here and buy houses," she said.
Many plaintiffs say they just want the truth.
"If it stops one person from getting cancer, it would be worth all this," said Clyde Wright, a telephone lineman whose 35-year-old son developed leukemia while attending a school near the pipeline.
No one really suspected pipeline contamination until 2002, though they had long worried about rare illnesses that seemed to spread like the flu in some neighborhoods.
"I wondered why everybody we grew up with had a parent with cancer," said Holly Perkins-Meyers, a former county court-at-law judge who joined the lawsuit after both her parents developed cancer. Her father has leukemia and her mother died in August of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"It's scary. I think if you look, everyone who grew up on my street, I can go to almost every house and there's someone in their family that's had it. This is not just a coincidence," she said.
Gary Cantrell, a storage building salesman, said doctors were surprised when his 78-year-old father was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 1994. He didn't smoke and he had no family history of cancer. The only other risk factors for the rare disease were environmental: exposure to radiation from an atomic bomb, for example, or, more commonly, long-term exposure to high levels of benzene.
Cantrell said his father died within weeks of the diagnosis. Nine years later, his 82-year-old mother was diagnosed with the same disease.
"Everybody went, 'What?'" he said. "All the doctors said, 'This is just unheard of.' Then they said, 'OK, where do they live?'"
Cantrell said his parents spent 20 years in a house less than 100 yards from the pipeline.
Source: Associated Press