In June 2008, following a five-week trial in United States vs. Apex Oil Company, Inc
, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois ordered Apex Oil to perform clean-up activities with an estimated cost of $150 million to $300 million. This constituted what is likely the largest relief obtained to date under the endangerment provision of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Section 7003.
History -- Contamination of Hartford Illinois Groundwater and Sub-Surface Soils
Over 1 million gallons of gasoline and other petroleum products form a plume beneath Hartford, Illinois floating on the groundwater table and enmeshed in sub-surface soils. That material continuously volatilizes into a vapor state, containing the carcinogen benzene and other hazardous substances. For almost 40 years, the residents of North Hartford suffered on and off, as the fumes were drawn into their homes through the process of vapor intrusion, causing hundreds of odor complaints, health complaints, and even some fires. Additionally, the groundwater aquifer beneath Hartford was grossly contaminated by the petroleum plume, with some samples showing benzene levels thousands of times higher than safe drinking water standards. This contamination threatens the Village’s drinking water supply, as it is present less than three city blocks from the groundwater recharge area for Hartford’s municipal drinking water wells.
The hydrocarbon contamination beneath North Hartford was formed by:
- repeated leaks and spills from, among other things, Apex Oil’s former refinery (located just east of North Hartford); and
- a set of gasoline pipelines that ran from the Refinery, under the center of Hartford, and on to storage and loading facilities along the Mississippi River.
The scope and location of the plume was identified using innovative tools, including the Rapid Optical Screening Tool (“ROST”) and cone penetrometer (“CPT”), with which hundreds of readings were taken.
Although there is a well-documented history of leaks and spills from the Hartford Refinery and associated pipelines during the period of Apex Oil’s ownership, Apex Oil refused to join other area oil companies in participating in a consensual clean-up agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Forensic analysis of the hydrocarbon contamination currently beneath Hartford confirmed Apex Oil’s role, however, showing that most of the remaining product was consistent in terms of lead content and refining process with gasoline produced by Apex Oil and inconsistent with products produced by the other oil companies.
- The District Court ordered Apex Oil to implement an EPA-approved remedy, the Active LNAPL Recovery System, which will use a network of wells, a vacuum system, and piping to collect both liquid-phase and vapor-phase hydrocarbons.
- Additionally, Apex Oil must implement interim measures - sealing basement cracks, installing vent fans, monitoring vapor levels - to protect Hartford’s residents from vapor intrusion while the remedy is implemented.
- Once the petroleum is removed as an ongoing source of groundwater contamination, then the groundwater itself will be remediated by Apex Oil through a large-scale groundwater pump and treat system.
In addition to issues relating to an endangerment determination under RCRA Section 7003, the Apex Oil matter also required analysis of the interrelationship between RCRA and bankruptcy law. The District Court held that injunctive relief ordered under RCRA is not dischargeable as a claim in bankruptcy. That issue was upheld on appeal by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in August 2009. (Listen to the Oral Argument at the Seventh Circut Court of Apeals)