The smell of prosperity or illness?

At the town's height, there were three oil refineries, like this one.

Tess Vigeland: The town of Roxana, Ill., sits at the end point of one of the country's biggest pipelines. Oil's been good to Roxana.

Once upon a time, three refineries, along with steel mills and manufacturing plants, employed tens of thousands of people. But then the economy changed. The factories and two of the refineries shut down. And in 1986, one of the pipelines that brings oil to Roxana broke and the town has been living with the consequences ever since.

Producer Scott Carrier reports.


Scott Carrier: Roxana, Ill. is a small town of 1,600 people, located one mile from the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, about 15 miles upstream from St. Louis. It has a library, two stop lights, a couple of hair salons. The houses are small, nothing fancy.

It's a nice place to live, except the air smells like a mix between a feed lot and new asphalt, because there's a refinery next to the village that processes up to 300,000 barrels of crude oil every day.

Donnie Odell: That's the smell of money.

Donnie and Chrissie Odell own the King Louie Drive-in.

Donnie: That's what keeps everybody working and again. Both of us being 45 years old, almost 45 and being raised around here, that's what we were always told, "That's the smell of money."

Carrier: Do you worry about your kids?

Chrissie Odell: Yeah, once in a while. You know it can't be good to breathe that everyday.

Carrier: How come you don't move, how come people don't move out of town?

Donnie: People around here are, just to be honest with you, they're good hard working people and they do care about the community, and that's why, again, we stay in business 'cause these people have been around here forever. They appreciate the small businesses and they stay.

Sound of a baseball game

This is a baseball game, the Roxana High School Shells versus the Greenville Comets. They use the name Shells because for years the refinery was owned and operated by Shell Oil. The school sits next to the refinery, white clouds billowing from five or six smoke stacks.

Roxana has always been an industrial, blue collar town. The first refinery was built here in 1918 and the town grew up around it. In it's heyday, there were three refineries employing thousands of people.

Conoco Phillips now owns the one remaining refinery, employing 900, but only six people who live in Roxana work at the refinery. Anybody with a refinery job makes enough money to move out of town and get away from the smell and the dangerous chemicals.

The average price for a single family home in the Roxana zip code is $62,000, while about 20 miles to the east, in the Edwardsville area, the average price is about five times that, at just over $300,000.

Jack Brown: I would love to get out of here.

Jack Brown is a bus mechanic for the Roxana schools. In 1997, he was diagnosed with leukemia, a type of blood cancer he believes was caused by benzene that spilled from a refinery pipeline in 1986.

Brown: I don't want to go far, just want to get away from the refinery. I've got too much invested in my career here, and I love my career here. The more I can be away from this place, it'd be the better -- and I think that's for anybody.

In 1986, back when Shell was managing the Roxana refinery, a pipeline running from the refinery to the Mississippi River leaked about 9,000 gallons of benzene, a known carcinogen, into the ground just outside the village limits.

Shell cleaned up the benzene that came to the surface, but much of the spill stayed underground. The plume migrated and is now directly beneath parts of Roxana. Shell has dug a series of test holes about 50 feet deep to monitor the benzene plume, and one hole shows levels 260,000 times the allowable limit.

And now, people in this neighborhood have leukemia. Scott Monroe is one of them. He's 21 years old. Three years ago, he graduated from Roxana High and was given a large scholarship from the U.S. Navy. He wanted to be a nuclear engineer.

Scott Monroe: I was always a good test taker. I did well on the ACT. I had really good grades throughout elementary school, junior high and high school.

So Scott left Roxana and went to the University of Michigan with high hopes and a lot of confidence, but very quickly, in his first semester, he started to feel really lousy.

Monroe: I was struggling with focusing. I was just getting too exhausted and worn out, just common things like even taking a shower. And I'm not a person who gives up very easily at all. I've never really given up on anything. I've always pushed hard, but I just couldn't find it within myself to stay there and I requested that my scholarship be revoked and I came back home. You know, I knew something was going on. I just didn't know what.

When Scott came home, he went to see a doctor. And after a series of tests he was told he had acute myelogenous leukemia and should immediately check into the cancer ward at a hospital in St. Louis. Scott is now in remission, but there's no guarantee he won't relapse.

Trixie Willeford: If you go out my back door, walk across the alley, I had a best friend who died three years ago of lung cancer, Angie Webster.

Trixie and Bud Willeford live just next door to Scott. Bud has blood cancer too, and Trixie has a long list of other people in the neighborhood.

Willeford: If you walk down three or four, five houses -- I don't know which -- same block, Mrs. Myers died of a blood disease that they never did identify. The house next to her, years ago -- can't tell you how many years -- Mrs. Medkip died of liver cancer. Come back in the house, go out my front door, walk across the street to my neighbor's yard, go in their alley and a man died three years ago of leukemia. Then on this side, there's Bob Evans has colon cancer, Steve Stamper has brain cancer; Fred Hubbard, one of our former mayors, died of cancer. I can't remember which kind. They all lived on the eastside of town, between Tydeman and Eighth Street.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has done two studies and one review of the rates of cancer in the Roxana area -- covering the time period from 1985 to 2008 -- and yet, the results show no significant increase.

Yes, according to epidemiologists, Roxana is not a cancer hotspot.

Marty Reynolds is the public works director for the town of Roxana.

Marty Reynolds: I've lived here in Roxana 52 out of my 56 years and I can look around and count multitudes of people that I know have died of cancer, but I can't dispute what the Illinois Department of Public Health tells me, that from their statistics, there's not a cancer hot spot in this area. It doesn't make sense. Everything that you hear, everything that you read in terms of chemical exposure, you would think this place would glow red on a map for the incidence of environmentally related cancers. But if the Department of Health is not telling me that's so, then it's certainly not my forte in analyzing it.

Shell's response is, quote, "Our primary concern is for the safety and well being of the Roxana community," unquote.

Meanwhile, some of the cancer victims have filed lawsuits against Shell and now, the people here, in the shadow of these refineries, don't know what to think. Does their town smell of money? Or disease? Or both? Or something else?

In Roxana, Ill., I'm Scott Carrier for Marketplace.


Vigeland: This story was originally produced for BURN: An Energy Journal from SoundVision Productions with support from the National Science Foundation.

About the author

Sc0tt Carrier is an independent radio producer and writer based in Salt Lake City Utah.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...