Resident: Gas-spill settlement unfair

Source:, March 24,2011
By: Kent Jackson

A machine still filters groundwater where gasoline seeped into a Hazleton neighborhood nearly two decades ago, triggering a $25 million cleanup and lawsuits that ended this week.

By Wednesday, most of the 258 families hadn’t heard the terms of the settlements reached two days before in their suits against ExxonMobil.

One who had, Matilda Degilio, said she expected to receive $1,500, of which $500 would go to the Locks Law Firm that represented the families.

“It’s a big company, that Exxon. We’re only going to get $1,000, and that’s not fair,” said Degilio, who spoke with one of her attorneys on Tuesday.

Locks Law Firm said it would release a statement about the case Wednesday, but had not done so as of Wednesday afternoon.

Exxon said in a statement that a mutually agreeable settlement was reached with the families, but specific details will remain confidential.

The case, which began in 2001 after an estimated 50,000 gallons of gasoline leaked into the neighborhood, outlasted some of the residents. One widow whose husband was a plaintiff said on Wednesday that she didn’t know about the lawsuit.

Others like Richard Angelo and Pat Capece said they were satisfied that the case ended and think the neighborhood is back to normal.

Because gasoline fumes entered homes from sewer lines, government contractors built the filtering plant, installed vents at homes and replaced sewers in Laurel Gardens, a neighborhood east of Church Street and north of Route 940 in Hazleton and Hazle Township.

“I don’t think it’s doing any good. All that stuff was going into the ground. It will take years after we’re all gone for that to get any better,” Robert Sabo said.

Joanne Bard, however, said the remedies made her feel better.

“We know we have sewer lines that aren’t coming into the house until they are emptied out. I feel we are more safe than people who don’t know what is underground,” Bard said.

To determine what was under the ground in Laurel Gardens, federal and state researchers dug monitoring wells and tested a coal mine beneath a ballfield in the neighborhood.

They sampled air in homes, too.

The tests persist.

Next week, state contractors are scheduled to sample well water, soil and air in homes for gas fumes, as they do twice a year. They are looking for gasoline and its components – toluene, xylene, ethyl benzene and benzene, a potential cause of leukemia that University of Pittsburgh researchers found in higher-than-expected instances in the Hazle Township portion of the neighborhood.

Stephen Jarvela, an on-site coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said tests occur in homes closest to the remaining contamination.

“We have not seen any measurable gasoline in any of the wells since early 2003,” Jarvela said.

Each week, a technician also inspects a system that vacuums gas vapors from groundwater and filters the vapors with charcoal. The machine also extracted and treated vapors from soil until 1½ years ago.

“The levels in the soil gas have been very low so we feel we don’t need to do that,” Jarvela said.

Filtering and monitoring will continue until technicians see levels low enough that they can declare victory.

“We’re getting to a level where the geologists and chemists say natural attenuation will take care of the rest of the contaminants,” Jarvela said when asked when the cleanup, which has cost $25,844,000 so far, will end.

The question of when the gas spill began delayed the filing of the lawsuits.

Bard said she smelled fumes in the basement of her home in the 1960s and 1970s, but thought it was sewer gas.

The spill probably started by 1993, according to evidence presented during a trial in September 2010 related to a case filed by two families.

Three gasoline stations and a fuel oil business were named potentially responsible.

Federal reports name the site after one of the retailers, Tranguch Tire Service, which closed and declared bankruptcy in 1995.

“When we saw the tanks taken out of Tranguch, it was scary. There were big holes in the tanks,” Bard said.

While Tranguch operated as an independent station, residents also sued ExxonMobil for supplying Tranguch with gasoline.

A jury in last September’s case ruled that ExxonMobil had a master-servant relationship with Tranguch. However, the two families received no money from ExxonMobil because they filed their lawsuits after the two-year statute of limitations expired.

The statute of limitations would have been an issue if any of the 258 other cases had gone to trial. One family whose case settled on Monday when its trial was scheduled to start addressed the statute of limitations when filing the lawsuit in 2001. In their complaint, they said confusing statements by state and federal authorities prevented them from knowing that their property was affected by the spill until within two years of when they sued.

While ExxonMobil was the last defendant to settle, many of the families reached settlements in 2007 with up to 14 other defendants in the cases.

In May 2010, meanwhile, 16 families that filed complaints for deaths or illnesses reached settlements.

The 258 cases that ended this week dealt with inconvenience caused by the construction and costs of monitoring for medical conditions that may arise from exposure to gasoline fumes.

Eleanor Middleton recalls emptying her garage of the lawnmower, snowblower and anything else that might emit vapors before placing a canister inside to sample air overnight.

“We never had any odors. We were fortunate,” she said. “I know a woman who went down to the basement and had to put on a mask.”

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