Leukemia victim sues Shell over benzene exposure

Source: http://www.thetelegraph.com, June 20, 2011
By: Sanford J. Schmidt

Scott Monroe was a 19-year-old naval scholarship student of nuclear engineering when he came down with a potentially lethal blood cancer that he and his lawyers claim is the result of a benzene leak from the refinery near his home.

Now, the disease, the refinery and the leak are the subject of a lawsuit Monroe filed last week in Madison County Circuit Court, naming Shell Oil Co. and BP Products North America as defendants.

“Mr. Monroe was first diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in April 2010, when he was just 19. He lost a $180,000 Navy scholarship to the University of Michigan to pursue a degree in nuclear engineering, and his career prospects have been severely and permanently damaged,” said Christopher Dysart of St. Louis, one of his attorneys.

The suit claims that the disease shortened Monroe’s life expectancy and caused him mental anguish. The suit also is asking for damages for medical bills and for medical treatment, possibly for the rest of his life.

The suit claims Shell released toxic chemicals, including benzene, into the ground and groundwater in Roxana and did nothing to clean up or otherwise address the chemicals for more than 20 years.

“From approximately 1991 through the present, Mr. Monroe lived at 120 East First Street, Roxana. From approximately 1995 through 2009, Mr. Monroe attended elementary through high school at 601 North Chaffer Avenue, Roxana,” the suit states.

The suit claims the refinery was using benzene during the time Monroe lived and went to school in Roxana. Benzene is a known carcinogen, linked to certain blood cancers, including AML, the suit claims.

Benzene is added to gasoline. The suit claims Monroe inhaled or ingested the chemical. The lawsuit specifies about a dozen areas in which the defendants allegedly were negligent. The complaint is asking for damages of at least $50,000 in each of two counts.

The suit claims Shell became aware of the dangers of benzene because of an excess rate of leukemia discovered at its Wood River refinery.

“In and around 1979, Shell compiled a list of leukemia cases at all of its U.S. refineries. Shell’s Wood River was the site of the largest number of leukemia deaths. In 1980, Shell calculated it had a statistically significant number of leukemia deaths at its Wood River refinery,” the suit claims.

The suit claims Shell publicly minimized and hid the dangers, but in May 2010, the Illinois Department of Public Health sent a letter to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which stated that a report dated February 2010, prepared for its contractor, URS, and posted on the Roxana Investigate Website for the citizens of Roxana to read, set forth misleading conclusions and recommendations regarding the dangers posed by benzene in the groundwater in and around Roxana.

Specifically, the IEPA “strongly disagreed” with the Shell URS posting, which stated the soil vapors do not pose a risk to the residents of Roxana.

The letter said there is good reason to believe that benzene and hexane vapors may be entering homes in Roxana.

The vapor problems have caused increasing concern among Roxana residents this year as investigators have visited homes along the west fence line of the property.

No indoor air problems were found at most homes; however, significant concentrations and other vapors were found beneath the basement slabs of three homes. The evidence suggests some vapors have intruded into the basements.

Shell has offered alternative housing to the homes’ residents until a remedy is in place. So far, Shell has installed three vapor extraction wells near the homes. Additional work is planned.

Monroe was the subject of a Telegraph article published last June. Friends were holding a fund-raiser for him after he was diagnosed.

His uncle, Mike Morelli, said then that Monroe graduated near the top of his high school class.

“All he wants to do is go to school, and this unfortunate thing happened to him,” Morelli said.

Monroe’s aunt, Spring Morelli, said Monroe is very young to be diagnosed with AML. His type of cancer normally affects people 60 years of age and older, she said.

Along with Shell and BP, which formerly operated a refinery nearby, the suit also names others as “respondents in discovery” so the plaintiff’s attorneys can obtain information from them.

Shell and BP officials could not be reached for comment.

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