Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP's Rise to Powerby Mike Magner
The story is all too-familiar: On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers and creating the largest oil spill in the history of U.S. offshore drilling. But, this wasn’t the first time British Petroleum and its cost-cutting practices destroyed parts of the natural world. It also was not the first time that
The story is all too-familiar: On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers and creating the largest oil spill in the history of U.S. offshore drilling. But, this wasn’t the first time British Petroleum and its cost-cutting practices destroyed parts of the natural world. It also was not the first time that BP’s negligence resulted in the loss of human life, ruined family businesses or shattered dreams. Journalist Mike Magner has been tracking BP’s reckless path for years and, for the first time, focuses on the human price of BP’s rise to power. From Alaska to Kansas to the Gulf, Magner has talked to people whose lives have been destroyed by BP’s almost unparalleled corporate greed. When BP acquired an abandoned Kansas refinery in 1998, it discovered one of the most contaminated groundwater plumes in the U.S. Rather than begin a full cleanup, BP declared there was no cause for concern. A former schoolteacher alarmed by cancer cases in the town pushed her community to take BP to court. In 2005, an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery, operating with a raft of safety problems because of neglected maintenance, killed fifteen people including the mother and father of a young woman who was driving there to spend the Easter holidays with her parents. A year later, thousands of gallons of oil spilled onto Alaska’s North Slope from a corroded BP pipeline. Following a hurricane, BP’s Thunder Horse rig almost sank because of a flaw in its construction, and repair work exposed even more serious problems. Poisoned Legacy is the searing true story of the rise and fall of BP, a company that went from being a green maverick promising a world “Beyond Petroleum” to one of the most notorious corporate villains in history.
This angry investigative report begins well before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe.
In the first chapter, National Journal editor Magner describes a possible cancer epidemic in a Kansas town where refinery wastes have poisoned a wide area and where a courageous retired schoolteacher is fighting an uphill battle to force BP to clean up. Apparently, he had been researching this problem when the Gulf blowout forced him to change the book's focus, but both stories alternate throughout the narrative. Readers with a taste for heated fist-shaking will have plenty of opportunities as Magner delivers detailed accounts of BP's mishaps, emphasizing the massive 2005 Texas refinery explosion, leaks and malfunctions along the Alaska pipeline and the Deepwater disaster. Each follows an identical pattern: BP officials cut costs, safety budgets drop, employees grumble and warn of disaster, disaster occurs, individuals who suffered terribly tell their stories and government regulators and the media suddenly show interest, resulting in an outpouring of outrage, investigations, damning reports, fines and apologies from BP executives and the inevitable avalanche of lawsuits. Magner makes a strong case for BP's negligence and the American government's feeble oversight, but his case that BP operates less competently than other oil companies is not as convincing. Perhaps wisely, the author makes no argument that Americans are willing to make the painful sacrifices necessary to ensure that these catastrophes never recur. We want oil, and we don't want it to cost too much.
A relentlessly critical denunciation of the latest environmental disaster that leaves the impression that more will follow.
“A lucid, hard-hitting indictment of BP's ingrained greed and irresponsibility.” Publishers Weekly
“The value in reading a book like this is to realize that what multinational corporations do can affect not only their employees but also whole towns and, in the case of the Gulf oil spill, vast regions of the country. . . . A very readable and engaging explanation of the kind of business culture that makes the mistakes that result in what happened on the Deepwater Horizon. . . . It's a story that needs telling.” Kalamazoo Gazette (Michigan)
“Tightly written, concise investigative journalism.” Booklist
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Read an Excerpt
THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER
THE OSAGE INDIANS, HAVING BEEN pushed westward by the Louisiana Purchase and a flood of white settlers in the early 1800s, landed on the lush plains of southeastern Kansas between two rivers that came to be called the Verdigris and the Fall. The fertile region had bountiful wildlife and abundant fresh water, both above and below the ground, so the tribe found it a fair substitute for its native lands nearby in Missouri. The verdant geography also made the so-called Indian Territory attractive to the Europeans. After the Civil War, enough whites had migrated to the area that a trading post was built at the convergence of the two rivers, near the base of a hill where the Osage chief known as Little Bear was buried.
The Osage tolerated the whites, but were appalled by their blatant disrespect for the land and waters. The settlers treated the rivers like sewers, dumping their wastes in the water with complete disregard for others who might be living downstream. So when the whites approached the tribe with a somewhat patronizing request for an Indian name for the new town, the Osage leaders decided to make a statement. “Nee-Oh-Da-Shay,” the tribe suggested, saying the name meant “Flower of the River.” A more precise translation would be “Poop in the River,” according to an Osage chief in the 1950s, Freddie Lookout. Most of the whites never caught on, and over time the official definition of Neodesha became “meeting of the waters,” which is how the community describes it today.
The community grew quickly, with the two populations coexisting separately but peacefully, at least until the U.S. government decided the Osage Nation should be forced out of Kansas—partly in retaliation for one band, the Greater Osage, having fought for the Confederates during the Civil War—and the tribe was ordered to relocate to a reservation in Oklahoma. Many of the Osage were ready to move anyway after an incident in the early 1870s in which the whites desecrated the mound where Chief Little Bear had been buried in 1868. Members of the tribe had returned for an annual ceremony and found the burial site had been opened and the chief’s body stolen, along with other items that had been placed in his grave for his journey to the next world. The Indians were so furious they did a war dance and prepared to burn down the town. It was only after a doctor produced the chief’s skeleton that the Osage backed down, but they remained bitter and cursed the settlement for decades to come.
The town’s real future was determined in 1891 when drillers seeking a natural gas supply for Neodesha struck oil on land owned by the local blacksmith, T. J. Norman. The site, named Norman No. 1, became the first well west of the Mississippi River to produce commercial quantities of oil—about twelve barrels a day to start—and set off a boom that had Kansas producing 4 million barrels a year by the turn of the century. In 1897, Standard Oil Company built a refinery in Neodesha, making the town one of the first major engines of the industrial revolution rapidly sweeping westward across the continent.
Oil refining has always been one of the messiest processes in modern manufacturing, and it was especially so in its early years when crude oil was mainly converted into kerosene, while other products, such as gasoline, were considered wastes that were typically dumped onto the ground or into the nearest river. Once the automobile industry emerged in the early 1900s, refineries shifted production to gasoline, but plenty of chemical by-products, including toxic compounds such as benzene, still poured into the air and water.
The Neodesha refinery kept getting bigger and dirtier as the decades flew past, and the town grew along with it, turning into a bustling city of three thousand by 1920. Two railroads crisscrossed the community, along with pipelines built to carry fuels to markets throughout the Midwest and beyond. New sections were continually added to the refinery, turning it into a complex of buildings, tanks, pipes, and equipment spread over two hundred acres. The plant supplied special fuels for the U.S. military during the two world wars and gasoline, diesel, and other products to the Farm Belt for more than seventy years. All the while, foul-smelling air, greasy water, and dead or damaged animals became commonplace. John Manderscheid, who grew up in Neodesha in the 1960s, recalled that he and a friend used to play in the creeks near the refinery amid dead fish and deformed frogs. Manderscheid was later diagnosed with spastic paraplegia and moved to Arizona after his doctors recommended a drier climate; his friend died from a brain tumor.
Some made the most of it: the Pettit family on Osage Street, only a block from the refinery, was able to pump gasoline directly from a cistern on their property and use it in their Model T, Robert Pettit said in a letter to the Neodesha newspaper. A photo of his cousin, Russell Grokett, pumping fuel from the Pettit’s backyard was published in Oil & Gas Journal in the early 1930s, he said. Things that would seem abnormal or hazardous in most communities were accepted in Neodesha as the price of progress. Those who wanted them had good jobs, and most people believed they were living the American dream. Little did they know that for some of their descendants, it would become a nightmare.
In the 1960s a revolt against industrial negligence spread across the land, as people grew increasingly concerned about air thick with smog, rivers catching fire, wildlife disappearing, and a frightening rise in deadly cancers and once-rare diseases. In response, Congress passed some of the toughest environmental laws in history—the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, the Clean Air Act in 1970, the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments in 1972 (expanded to the Clean Water Act in 1977). The national crackdown on pollution hit industries like a hurricane, forcing factory cleanups and, in some cases, plant closures. That’s what happened in Neodesha in 1970 as Amoco, a midwestern descendant of the Standard Oil breakup in 1911, just walked away from its aging, leaky refinery.
In September 1969 the Amoco manager, William A. Burns, announced the refinery would be closing the following April. He cited economics as the sole reason—a shift of markets to urban areas, higher production costs, less efficiency at the plant compared to larger new ones, declining oil supplies in the region. Burns pledged to help all workers find new jobs, and about two hundred asked for help. Many would move to Texas refineries, some to Missouri, North Dakota, and other states where Amoco had operations, and some managers were transferred to the company’s headquarters in Chicago. Nothing was said about pollution, at least not publicly. Amoco did donate $5,000 for razing old buildings on the site, in hopes that it could be turned into an industrial park. Eventually the city’s development commission would attract a fiberglass boat company, now Cobalt Boats, along with an aerosol can company and a cabinetmaker. Amoco estimated the appraised value of the site at $1 million, and deeded it to the city, more than four hundred acres in all.
This was a pattern that was repeated in dozens of communities across the United States over the next three decades. Partly because of stricter environmental regulations and partly due to consolidation in the oil industry, the number of active refineries dropped from 276 in 1970 to 158 in 2000, leaving more than a hundred abandoned sites. These heavily contaminated properties dot the landscape from Bakersfield, California, to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, and from Alma, Michigan, down to Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas.
In some cases modest cleanups were done, when environmental agencies decided that oily sediments in streams or toxic contaminants in groundwater could pose threats to public health. In rare instances, more extensive restoration was done, such as when a Wyoming judge who was fond of fishing in the North Platte River ordered Amoco to spend millions removing all the pollution from the river and from groundwater near its former refinery in Casper.
But in most cases, abandoned refinery sites were like Neodesha’s, where very little cleanup was done. And at many sites, as in Neodesha, new industries and businesses and even schools and homes were built on or near the contaminated properties, and the new tenants had no idea they were sitting on a toxic time bomb. “What you can’t see won’t hurt you” was the prevailing attitude in Neodesha. State health officials did require Amoco to monitor the old refinery site, and at one time it was suggested that a federal cleanup could be done if the site was added to the Superfund list, but city fathers wanted nothing to do with the idea, for fear Neodesha would be branded as a hazardous waste dump like Love Canal, New York, or Times Beach, Missouri.
And so it went—out of sight, out of mind—for almost thirty years after the refinery closed, or rather for a full century from the time the refinery was built in 1897. It wasn’t until 1999, a year after British Petroleum acquired Amoco in the largest industrial merger in history at the time, when the issue of contamination from the Neodesha refinery truly surfaced. The new BP-Amoco was now the second-largest oil company operating in North America behind ExxonMobil, also the product of a late-’90s megamerger. The power of these conglomerates made them intimidating to the average consumer, promoting a kind of grudging acceptance of Big Oil. Everyone needed gasoline, after all, so the downsides—price spikes, oil spills, global warming, refinery pollution—were viewed by many as the costs of doing business. Savvy BP officials in London, though, recognized that many Americans might be resentful about a foreign company controlling so much of their lifeblood. So this is when they launched a public relations campaign to give the company a softer, greener image. Ads suggesting that BP stood for Beyond Petroleum—with the British part of the name never mentioned—appeared on television and billboards and in magazines and newspapers. The company adopted a green and yellow sun logo with the friendlier lowercase letters bp at the top.
One of the corporation’s first steps after the merger was performing “due diligence” and evaluating the assets and liabilities it had acquired from Amoco. BP dispatched a team of appraisers and engineers to Neodesha to determine what was there, and based on what was revealed by later studies, they must have been stunned by what they found. Levels of contaminants such as benzene, toluene, and arsenic were thousands of times higher than the amounts considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to studies done later by health officials and the city’s engineers. The plume of pollution ran beneath at least 70 percent of the city, with the strong possibility of other toxic “hot spots” in the surrounding area as a result of past dumping by the refinery operation. Most homes and businesses in Neodesha were served by a municipal water system that drew from the Verdigris River, but many older properties still had abandoned wells that could overflow after storms or, worse, serve as conduits for poisonous gases. There was also a good chance that water leaking into basements was highly contaminated. Often after rainy weather, when the groundwater table rose, oily liquids oozed into the cracks in foundations of homes and businesses near the site. At the home of John W. Smith, for instance, two blocks from the old refinery, petrochemicals leached into the basement, dripping in oily liquids from the walls and permeating the house with chemical smells. Smith had prostate cancer and a tumor under his ear and his wife, Sarah, seventy-five, constantly had trouble breathing, so the couple decided to pull up roots and move to Texas for their final years.
BP-Amoco took steps to show it was addressing the problems, and worked with the city to obtain permits and authority for some preliminary cleanup work. It hired a contractor to begin pumping out contaminated groundwater, and received permission from the city and state to treat it on site and release the wastewater into the river. Tons of chemicals that were removed had to be trucked to a hazardous waste landfill. However, the company told the local paper for a September 23, 1999, story that most of the activity was “routine monitoring” of the site. Some groundwater remediation was being done, but there was “no health or safety concern to Neodesha residents,” company spokesman Dick Brewster told the Neodesha Derrick. “Amoco will keep the community informed of future monitoring activities.”
The company may have assumed that this would be the end of the matter, as the oil industry had grown accustomed to successfully glossing over problems in cities and towns everywhere, with little resistance or concern. Then again, British Petroleum had never encountered anyone like Katherine Lucille Campbell of Neodesha.
A retired schoolteacher with a true-blue Kansan independent streak, Lucille Campbell, known by her middle name, read the story in the Derrick about BP’s “monitoring” and immediately had questions. How could they be so sure there were no health or safety concerns? Lucille had seen the warnings posted on most gasoline pumps saying that benzene vapors can cause cancer and other illnesses. If this was just routine monitoring, why were they removing contaminants?
The questions gnawed at her for weeks, and no new information was published in the Derrick as BP-Amoco had promised in the September 1999 story. Lucille was not by nature a rabble-rouser or an organizer; she had never formed a group of any kind or campaigned for any cause, other than sending a few checks to the Sierra Club after joining the environmental group in her fifties. As she entered her sixties, her spinal cord began deteriorating in a painful way that hospitalized her several times and ended up leaving her in a wheelchair much of the time by age sixty-five, making her an even less-likely candidate to become a community activist. She only became interested in the pollution after reading about it in the local paper, and she grew more concerned only because BP’s statements that the pollution posed no risks to residents just didn’t seem plausible. Having such deadly chemicals so close to the surface, especially in areas where many children were exposed, had to be of some concern, she reasoned. And when she heard that residents near a similar abandoned refinery outside Kansas City had successfully sued BP for property damages, she realized that “maybe my ideas weren’t all that off base.”
After teaching for twenty years in six different Kansas schools, Lucille Campbell knew how to do her homework. She began talking with people in the community and researching old issues of the Derrick at the library, and kept coming across stories about people—especially young people—with debilitating diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
There was Susan Baker, who moved to Neodesha when she was four years old in 1975 and developed diabetes nine years later. Her baby boy Marcus had to undergo open-heart surgery and a liver transplant as a result of birth defects and a disease called biliary atresia; her husband died of cancer at age twenty-four in 1993.
There was the family of Gerry Claiborne, whose oldest son was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and lymphoma when he was in the ninth grade. After weeks of chemotherapy he began to recuperate and went on to earn a degree from Kansas University, but he was condemned to a life of thyroid medicine, limited weight gain, and soft bones, his mother said.
At least two other young children in town were found to have leukemia in the early 2000s, and both underwent months of chemo before the cancer went into remission. A five-year-old boy who had died in 1993, Stevie Lee, wasn’t so fortunate. Lucille found a newspaper story about Stevie that reported he fell and hit his head at the Jiffy Mart, and the doctor who examined him for a concussion discovered that Stevie had a brain tumor. The boy died shortly afterward.
On the farm next to the Campbell home just outside Neodesha, Don Shafer told Lucille that he was worried his family was exposed to toxic chemicals when he was growing up in a house just two blocks from the refinery. “We played in the ponds and never found any frogs or toads,” Shafer said. Some years later, Shafer’s daughter was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor at age thirty-five. Radiation treatments have shrunk the tumor some, but she regularly travels to Texas for treatments aimed at stopping the seizures she still experiences frequently. Doctors can’t say what caused the tumor, but Shafer said he believes the pollution in Neodesha had a lot to do with it.
Shafer introduced Lucille to Rick Johnson, operator of a salvage yard in Neodesha that frequently put him on the site of the former refinery to recover materials from the industries that had located there. Johnson also took a lot of scrap from the city, including old pipes that had been dug up on or near the refinery site and often set off his Geiger counter with unsafe measurements of radioactivity. Johnson began to suspect that many underground pipes in Neodesha were radioactive, a common condition at refineries where oil can leave “hot” residues behind.
Johnson is no ordinary scrap yard operator. An avid researcher who speaks several languages, he made it his business to find out everything he could about the refinery operations and the mess that was left behind. He discovered pools of oily water in ditches and ponds around the site, and digging just a few feet below the surface often uncovered globs of oil or the unmistakable smell of gasoline or diesel fuel. A huge containment pond that had been built by Standard Oil in the early part of the last century was largely devoid of life. And all around the site where some crumbling buildings remained from the old refinery, basement windows were sealed to hide the black oily water that had seeped inside.
For his efforts, Johnson was rewarded with numerous health problems, including diabetes, several heart attacks, and a bout with leukemia. But he persisted in poking around the contaminated site, monitored the comings and goings of officials from BP and government agencies, and reported all that he learned to Lucille Campbell.
Lucille handled the library research, including scrolling through the local newspaper archives, and she compiled a list of deaths and serious illnesses in the town that quickly grew into the dozens. It seemed like a high rate for a community of less than three thousand people, and the problems seemed to be clustered in the area around the refinery site, in neighborhoods filled with homes built decades ago for the plant’s workers and their families.
Most disturbing of all to Lucille was the discovery that her own three-month-old daughter, who died unexpectedly when the family lived a block from the refinery in 1964, may have been a victim of the pollution.
* * *
FUEL AND CHEMICAL SMELLS WERE thick in the air over Neodesha when Gretta Campbell was born on November 8, 1963, much as they had been almost since the turn of the century when Standard Oil built the refinery. Her mother, Lucille, didn’t think of it then, of course, but looking back it was no wonder that Gretta didn’t start breathing properly when she arrived, and the doctor had to force her to use her lungs. Lucille Campbell’s only concern at the time was that her fifth child in five years would be as healthy as the others. Sadly, she would learn all too soon that would not be the case.
Gretta was a smiling baby, to be sure, but one who was strangely quiet. She rarely fussed or cried, even when hungry or wet. Lucille wondered if something was wrong—although the doctor hadn’t said anything was—and worried about it constantly at first. Had she caused a problem during the pregnancy? Was she providing the proper care? Was she giving Gretta as much attention as she gave four-year-old Robert, three-year-old Janice, two-year-old Bill, and one-year-old Tommy (or was that even possible)? The questions were always in the back of her mind, although the concerns gradually subsided as Lucille was swept up by the job of caring for five young children. Then, two weeks after Gretta’s birth, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and everyone was overwhelmed by the pall cast over the entire country. Nothing else so horrible could happen, Lucille thought.
As winter settled over the plains, Lucille and her family became decidedly unsettled. Bob Campbell, a gandy dancer for the Frisco Railroad, was being transferred to Wichita for construction work on the rails. Even though Neodesha was her hometown, Lucille was looking forward to leaving. It wasn’t just the constant odor, so oppressive at times that you couldn’t go outside on an otherwise gorgeous day. The refinery itself, only a block away from the Campbell home, was an imposing, threatening presence she would be glad to have in her past. Lucille had many memories of the huge plant operated by Standard Oil and one of its successors, Amoco, since 1897. And most of them were bad. There was the time when she was six years old, in the middle of World War II, when she was waiting for her parents near the refinery site and was stomping around on the cover of a well. The cover collapsed and down she went, right into an oily, smelly brine. Fortunately, her sister saw Lucille’s bright red hat as it was disappearing into the ground, and she was pulled out quickly, but not before swallowing some of the nastiest liquid she would ever taste. It was one of her earliest and worst memories. Maybe if she moved away from Neodesha it would sink deeper into her subconscious.
By February the family had moved many of their belongings to Wichita, and on Friday the twenty-first they came back to clean out more of the four-room house they had lived in since 1961, in a neighborhood near the refinery called “Glasstown” because a glass factory operated there years ago. Once the oldest four had settled down to sleep in one bedroom, Lucille took the baby into her and Bob’s room and laid Gretta on a platform rocker that once belonged to Lucille’s grandmother, because they already had moved the baby bed to Wichita. The rocker had large, padded arms that extended into the seat, and Lucille had used it many times as a child to curl up and read or take a nap. She put the chair with Gretta next to the bed when she and Bob retired.
Lucille awoke Saturday morning and found Gretta asleep. “Hey, sleepyhead,” she said as she picked the baby up. “I can’t believe you aren’t fussing for a bottle or dry britches!” But Gretta felt cold and did not respond. Lucille knew immediately that something was wrong. She wrapped the baby in her robe and kept trying to wake her. Gretta was breathing but her body was limp. Lucille told Bob to stay with the other children while she drove Gretta to the hospital. Dr. Charles Stevenson, who had delivered Gretta three and a half months earlier, examined and admitted her, but started no medical procedures. She was placed in a semiprivate room with a young woman who had attempted to commit suicide.
Lucille waited with Gretta for what seemed an eternity. Her color began to turn blue; her breathing became shallower. Lucille kept talking to Gretta and trying to wake her. The only noticeable response was a few tears that ran down the side of her face. Suddenly she appeared to have stopped breathing. Lucille ran into the hallway and cried for help. Dr. Stevenson had left the hospital, so Dr. Frank Moorhead came and called for a crash cart. Dr. Moorhead worked on Gretta, tried to force her to breathe as Dr. Stevenson had done at her birth, but it was futile. He later told Lucille that it appeared Gretta had “bled out” in the brain, much like an older person having a stroke. He called it a congenital aneurysm. No autopsy was done, however, and Lucille never asked for one because she couldn’t stomach the idea of her beautiful little girl being dissected. No one mentioned it to her then, but Dr. Stevenson signed the death certificate and listed the cause of death as an accident—that Gretta had caught her head in a chair.
* * *
IT WASN’T UNTIL THIRTY-FIVE YEARS later that Lucille learned what really might have caused Gretta’s death. Lucille and Bob had returned to Neodesha in 1987, after the other four kids had grown up. Lucille ended her career as a teacher, and Bob was forced to retire with a disability after being injured on a job with the Kansas highway department. In 1999, Lucille became interested in genealogy, inspired by all the stories she had heard over the years about her roots. Ancestors on her mother’s side helped establish the city of Hartford, Connecticut, and fought in the Revolutionary War (making Lucille a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Daughters of the American Colonists, and the National Society of New England Women). She traced her father’s side back to Brooklyn, New York. She followed the family’s path through Civil War battles, with one great-great-grandfather fighting for the North and a great-grandfather for the South. After the war, some of the family made its way to Kansas by wagon train, and ended up in Neodesha, where Lucille’s father worked at the W. J. Small alfalfa mill.
One thing that struck Lucille during her research was that there were no reports of serious illnesses on her family tree. She thought about Gretta again and old doubts that had nagged her for decades came rushing back: Had she done something wrong? Did she provide proper care? She remembered the doctor describing an aneurysm. What could have caused that in a three-month-old baby? Lucille needed to know more, so she wrote to the Wilson County Hospital and asked for records of Gretta’s hospitalization and death.
A short time later, the hospital called Lucille to say that the records of Gretta’s treatment had been found on microfilm. She went immediately to look at them and found some so faint they were unreadable, but the lab results were crystal clear. “I felt like someone had poured ice water on me,” Lucille later wrote in an article about Gretta’s death. “Her white [blood cell] count was 44,700!” One of Lucille’s past jobs had been in a family doctor’s office, so she knew what this meant, although she consulted with several doctors and nurses to confirm her suspicion. “The general opinion was that her death could very likely be due to leukemia such as acute lymphocytic leukemia resulting in thrombocytopenia, acute mylogenous,” she wrote. In other words, a rare, fast-progressing, and deadly form of cancer.
A wave of anxiety came over Lucille as she connected the dots between the refinery pollution and Gretta’s illness. And as she gathered information about other illnesses and deaths in the town, she realized that Gretta was only a small part of the total picture.
Lucille Campbell researched cancer rates and average ages of death in Kansas cities and counties, and found evidence that Neodesha’s and Wilson County’s were disproportionately high. She formed a group she called NEAT—the Neodesha Environmental Awareness Team—and wrote up newsletters that she distributed at stores, the library, and city hall. She contacted Erin Brockovich, whose campaign to help a California town sue a utility for toxic dumping was made into a successful movie, for legal advice. (An attorney recommended by Brockovich, Ed Hershewe of Joplin, Missouri, looked into filing a suit over cancer cases in the town, but decided it would be difficult to prove a clear link to the pollution.) Lucille wrote the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and every other government agency she could find, asking for an investigation.
What followed was one of the most remarkable challenges to the power of the oil industry ever seen in the United States, one in which a British company was being asked, in essence, to pay for a century of sins by Standard Oil and its successors in the center of America’s heartland. It was a classic David versus Goliath story: A small Kansas town, prodded by a senior citizen in a wheelchair, files a $1-billion lawsuit against a giant international conglomerate. And the drama of Neodesha v. British Petroleum would be played out by a cast of characters worthy of Hollywood, with Lucille Campbell perfectly suited for the leading role. She was the quintessential Great Plains woman, a descendant of Revolutionary War and Civil War heroes, whose grandparents came to Kansas in a covered wagon, put down roots, and thanked God for delivering them to the Promised Land. And when the promise turned into a lie, she rose up defiantly and demanded justice.
BP, of course, took none of this lightly. The company moved quickly to try to show it was addressing any potential problems. It presented a cleanup plan to the city commission calling for air testing in homes and businesses and groundwater pumping to remove contaminants. While constantly assuring residents there were no threats to their health and safety, BP quietly arranged for its attorneys and the Neodesha mayor, J. D. Cox, to sign a covenant on April 17, 2000, stipulating that for the next seventy-five years, until January 1, 2075, the refinery site would not be used for residences, farming, or overnight lodging; no structures would be built with basements; only limited excavations would be allowed; and the groundwater would not be used. The company described the covenant as merely precautionary, but there was a larger purpose: Restrictions on development at the site would ease pressure from the state for a full cleanup of the groundwater.
BP appeared to believe that if it was going to stop a lawsuit it had to convince the community that litigation was unwarranted and would be damaging to Neodesha’s reputation. To help make its case, the company hired a top law firm, Sidley Austin, and the Kansas City office of a national public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard. A key product of their consultations was a strategy memo written by attorney Evan Westerfield titled “The Book of Common Prayer,” which appeared aimed at appealing to the community’s Christian faith to squash talk of a lawsuit against BP. Wouldn’t it be wrong, they would argue, to go to court against the very industry that built the town in the last century? Westerfield was a partner in the Chicago office of Sidley Austin, one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious law firms, and he was a Yale University and Chicago Law School graduate who specialized in defending corporations charged with environmental crimes. In this case, though, Westerfield’s goal was to prevent a lawsuit in the first place, and that meant finding a way to undercut the efforts of Lucille Campbell.
Lucille was convinced that BP’s team was closely tracking her activities, looking for vulnerabilities it could attack and information it could use to gain the upper hand when she challenged the company. At the Neodesha library, where Lucille often did research, she began to feel employees were spying on her: Once when she returned to retrieve something, she found a library aide sitting at the computer she had been using, and it appeared to Lucille that the aide was trying to go back over her research. Fleishman-Hillard consultant Julie Gibson followed every letter and column Lucille Campbell wrote to the Neodesha Derrick and immediately prepared responses for BP officials to submit to the paper.
Armed with information about Lucille, BP’s strategists waited for a chance to pounce. An opportunity presented itself when she was invited to attend a meeting in Sugar Creek, the Kansas City suburb where Amoco had closed another refinery in 1982. Residents near the site had already sued the company for property damages and won substantial settlements, and more than thirty of them were taking it a step further and seeking compensation for health problems they claimed were caused by contamination from the refinery, which had operated for nearly eighty years. Lucille went to a meeting there organized by a neighborhood group called CLEANUP, and had her first real confrontation with officials from British Petroleum.
As soon as she signed in for the meeting, a confident, well-cropped man in his forties hustled up to her and introduced himself as Ron Rybarczyk, director of public relations for BP-Amoco. After a bit of chitchat, Rybarczyk asked Lucille to meet with him and two other BP officials—press spokesman Dick Brewster and Neodesha project manager Lloyd Dunlap—at the Neodesha library on an upcoming Saturday in early 2002. Before Lucille had a chance to respond, some women from the CLEANUP group interrupted, Rybarczyk walked away, and the women warned Lucille to beware of him. Their words of caution only reinforced what Lucille already felt in her gut about Rybarczyk and BP. Lucille had a bad feeling that the company was trying to gang up on her, which made her very nervous.
It turned out her instincts were correct. In a February 2002 memo filed in court years later, public relations experts from Fleishman-Hillard reported to BP that they had spent more than thirty hours in the first weeks of the year developing arguments and strategies to counter Lucille Campbell. Even without knowing this, Lucille sensed that BP was laying a trap for her, and she decided not to go to the library on the designated Saturday. A few days later she received a note from Rybarczyk, saying he “very much” regretted that she hadn’t come to the meeting. “I understand you were told not to meet with us all by yourself,” he wrote, although Lucille wasn’t quite sure how he knew this—she had never mentioned her concerns to him. Rybarczyk offered to let Lucille bring anyone she wanted to a meeting in the near future, so they could “start direct communication with each other, because without that, I’m not sure how anything productive can be accomplished.” Lucille did not respond.
BP did not give up easily though. They seemed confident, in fact, that they could win over Lucille through the Bible Baptist Church, where she had been a member for many years, and where her son Bill was training to become a minister. The company felt it had an ace in the hole at the church, for the pastor and Bill’s teacher, DeWayne Prosser, was a former city commissioner and a current county commissioner who adamantly opposed a lawsuit against the oil company. “Some of us still are receiving benefits from BP because of years of working for Standard Oil and we think that BP is still taking very good care of their employees,” Prosser and a group of residents wrote in one letter to the local paper. “We think that you are ‘biting the hand that’s feeding you.’”
Prosser’s father had been a refinery employee, and many former workers at the plant and their families were members of his church. Prosser himself suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that put him in the hospital on life support nearly two dozen different times, but he was adamant that the disease was not connected to contamination in Neodesha.
Prosser’s wife, Elaine, was also very vocal in supporting the company. Once after church, Lucille Campbell showed her a photo of a two-year-old boy who was bald from chemotherapy, and asked if she thought the refinery pollution was killing the town’s children with cancer. Lucille recalled that the preacher’s wife angrily pushed the picture aside and exclaimed: “Maybe it’s God’s judgment upon them!”
Not long after that, five-year-old Charles Catron became seriously ill in Neodesha, where he was being raised by his grandparents, Connie and Dennis Catron. After coming down with what appeared to be a cold or flu on Valentine’s Day in 2003, the boy grew more and more listless, constantly falling asleep, and unable to eat much solid food. After more than a week in which he showed no improvement, Connie decided he should be taken to the hospital, but a raging snowstorm made her and Dennis hesitant to drive themselves. Connie called for an ambulance, and while they were waiting for it to arrive Dennis was holding Charles in his arms when he stopped breathing.
The ambulance attendants transported the boy’s body to the hospital for an autopsy. “They found a 55,000 white blood cell count,” Connie Catron said. “It shut his whole system down.” She and her husband don’t know if Charles’s illness was caused by exposure to toxic pollution, but the question haunts them to this day. “His mother was raised in Neodesha,” Connie said. “She might have been affected by the pollution. I really don’t know. We don’t have any answers. I was raised there, too. My mother was raised right there near the refinery and she got breast cancer. They need to be held accountable if that’s what caused it.”
Meanwhile, BP’s PR team decided to appeal directly to Lucille Campbell’s Christian faith in its efforts to get her to back off from talking up a lawsuit. This time BP’s project manager in Neodesha, Lloyd Dunlap, was dispatched to approach her after a meeting. “Lucille, I came to know the Lord when I was seventeen,” he said. It seemed awkward and totally out of place, but Lucille played along, asking Dunlap what church he attended now. He seemed to fumble for an answer, finally saying, “Southern Baptist.” Then he flashed a ring with a Christian fish emblem. “I felt like someone had been checking into my private life,” Lucille said later.
A few days later Lucille received a note from Dunlap: “I would like to meet with you to explain my walk with the Lord,” he wrote. “I would suggest that your pastor come along also, just to listen. Let me know if we can do this.” Lucille declined the invitation, and would soon face a brutal retaliation. It came at her son’s ordination, an event Lucille went to filled with pride and joy, only to have Prosser spoil the occasion by approaching her beforehand and warning her not to bring up the pollution with any member of the congregation. After the ceremony, Lucille’s son told her he agreed with the pastor, and said his mother would have to go before the congregation to consider her banishment from the church. Lucille was devastated; the two most important institutions in her life, her church and her family, had turned against her.
Lucille was beginning to get disheartened, which seemed to be exactly what BP intended. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, BP tried to put an end to the matter once and for all. It presented a report to the Neodesha city commission saying its investigation had found that most of the contamination in the groundwater below the site was caused by a lightning strike on an oil tank in 1968. Lucille immediately searched the library files of the Neodesha Derrick and found a May 27, 1968, story about the lightning strike; the paper reported that the tank that was hit contained a blending agent called ultra-formate, but none of the petroleum products now found in the groundwater. Her friend Rick Johnson recalled watching the burning tank as a teenager sitting on the porch of his home directly across the street from the refinery. Johnson remembered that firefighters were able to siphon much of the liquid from the tank as it was burning, to enable them to put it out sooner, but it still took all night for them to bring the blaze under control.
Lucille was convinced BP was grossly understating the problems, but city officials appeared to be buying the company’s explanations and there was little she could do to change their minds.
Then suddenly—almost miraculously, it seemed to Lucille—she received a response from one of the many government agencies she had petitioned for an investigation. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, planned to send a team of health specialists to study illnesses and deaths in the community. The team’s leader, Shawn Blackshear, was a lieutenant in the Public Health Service, a dedicated public servant who was passionate about his work. On his first trip to Neodesha from his office in Kansas City, he asked Lucille to take him around the town. Blackshear was shocked by what she showed him. Especially disturbing was a job-training facility with a day care center sitting right where some of the refinery tanks used to be located. Test wells drilled by BP and the state health department showed that the pollution in the groundwater was concentrated below the site, but had spread beyond it into the surrounding neighborhoods, Blackshear said. “I was just floored at how huge that underground plume was,” he recalled years later.
Blackshear and his team of investigators met with residents, researched the refinery’s history, and conducted tests around town on soil, water, and air. One sample from a well on the high school grounds showed benzene levels of 20,000 parts per billion, more than two thousand times above the so-called safe limit. All the information was sent to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, where health experts would evaluate it and write a report, called a health consultation, for the community. Blackshear wasn’t sure what the consultation would say, but he had a gut feeling there were serious problems in the town that needed to be addressed.
But Blackshear also sensed that BP was bullying the town—and possibly state regulators—into accepting that the pollution posed no threat. Once after Lucille Campbell left a meeting hosted by the ATSDR, BP’s public relations manager, Rybarczyk, “started mouthing off about her, trying to paint her as a nut or a goofball,” Blackshear said. The comments infuriated Blackshear. “She’s concerned about her community!” he said he thought to himself as Rybarczyk ranted about Lucille Campbell.
Blackshear also thought it was curious that Lloyd Dunlap, the BP site manager in Neodesha, had previously worked at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and while he was there, from 1994 to 1997, he was the supervisor of Pam Chaffee, who was now KDHE’s manager on the Neodesha site. The reality, too, was that KDHE relied entirely on BP for data about the groundwater contamination, and the ATSDR had to rely heavily on KDHE, Blackshear said. Even so, KDHE officials acted like the federal agency was stepping on their turf, he said. “It was kind of this thing that this is our territory, the feds can’t tell us what to do,” he said. The overall impression was that KDHE was defensive about BP, and “BP’s paying the bill,” he said.
No matter how anyone sliced it, though, there was no question the contamination in Neodesha was vast and extensive. In 2008, in a progress report to the city on BP’s cleanup efforts, KDHE itself said that the company had extracted and treated 164 million gallons of contaminated groundwater and recovered 78,237 gallons of petroleum products (enough to fill four average-sized swimming pools), yet the cleanup was still far from complete.
Despite BP’s insistence that the pollution did not represent a health hazard, once a federal agency came to town and started investigating, the tides of public opinion in Neodesha began shifting against the company. In January 2003 Lucille received a call from Mayor J. D. Cox, who a few years earlier had secretly signed the agreement with BP limiting development on the refinery site for seventy-five years. Cox told Lucille he had been asked to pass along some concerns the city had about her activist group, NEAT, but the mayor confided that he thought she was doing a good job. He didn’t want to be seen with her at meetings, but he was now “wary” of BP. He encouraged her to continue.
BP must have picked up the scent. The next month Lucille was invited to join a “corrective action advisory board” set up by BP and the city to seek ideas for how the “final stage” of the cleanup should be conducted. Lucille agreed to participate, but could tell from the start that the effort was heavily skewed toward BP with Dunlap in charge. Pam Chaffee of KDHE, Dunlap’s former employee, was also on the panel. The group also included several residents who clearly sided with the company. After several months of meetings, the advisory board rubber-stamped a series of recommendations largely drafted by BP, including suggestions that topsoil contaminated with lead be removed from the site and that deposits of oil found just below the surface in some areas be cleaned out. An attorney for the city would later equate the plans to playing with Tinker Toys on an industrial site.
Later in 2003, the ATSDR gave its health consultation to the city, and it was a bitter disappointment for Lucille and her supporters. The report said there were concerns about cancer-causing chemicals being present throughout the community, and it recommended further monitoring, but the agency said it could not make a clear link between the contaminants and deaths or illnesses in the community. “Because additional surface soil sampling, groundwater and ambient and indoor air sampling are needed to make a public health determination, the former Neodesha refinery is classified as an indeterminant public health hazard based on data limitations,” the report concluded.
The leader of the investigative team, Blackshear, was utterly dismayed and frustrated with his agency. “Every time they would go to a site they would say the same thing—no public health impact,” he said later. A few months after the Neodesha report was issued, Blackshear quit his high-level post in the agency’s regional office and took a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a remote part of Utah.
By early 2004, Neodesha was split into two camps, those for and those against a lawsuit. BP had many prominent citizens on its side, including Terry Harper, the publisher of the Derrick, who asked Lucille if she was trying to destroy the city’s economic future. Her former pastor, DeWayne Prosser, was also still a strong force on the Wilson County Board of Commissioners, keeping a majority there in line against litigation. Prosser argued that some pollution was inevitable from the messy business of producing fuel, but the industry should be trusted when it said there was little risk. “Until we quit driving vehicles and using plastics, we have to get the oil out of the ground and refine it as safely as possible,” he said in one of his campaign statements for another term on the board that year.
But a number of city officials—including J. D. Cox, who switched from mayor to city administrator in 2004, and new mayor Casey Lair—were beginning to feel that they had been misled by BP. A company risk assessment in 2003 had staunchly maintained there was no threat to public health from the pollution, yet by the end of the year federal investigators were expressing concerns, however muted. BP also insisted that nearly all the pollution was caused by a lightning strike on a tank in 1968, but subsequent tests by the city’s own engineers revealed so many different chemicals in the groundwater that they could not possibly have been caused by a single spill.
City leaders were especially incensed that BP failed to warn them about contamination that clearly could pose a threat to the community’s young people. “It is difficult to understand how BP, which was fully aware of the severity of the contamination under the old high school, was not forthcoming with that information, instead choosing to remain silent while we unknowingly built and expanded our new facility atop some of the most serious contamination,” former mayor Cox and current mayor Lair wrote in an open letter to the community in 2004. “We attempted good faith negotiation with BP but shockingly watched as they methodically staffed their side of the negotiating table with paid professional negotiators whose experience was earned working for BP in settling other closed refinery sites.”
On the strength of those arguments, the city commission voted in March 2004 to sue the company for “fraudulent concealment, fraud by silence, negligence, nuisance and trespass.” The lawsuit demanded a cleanup and the city’s attorney, John M. Edgar of Kansas City, filed a statement with the court estimating damages to be at least $1 billion. Within months the local school district and several businesses on the former refinery site joined the lawsuit. And after Lucille’s former preacher, Prosser, lost his reelection bid to the county commission, the Wilson County board voted to become a plaintiff, too.
The Edgar law firm, made up of John M. Edgar and his two sons, David and John F., was hired by the city because of its experience in class action suits, and because the Edgars agreed to take the case on an incentive basis. “They will be paid on results, not just efforts,” City Administrator Cox assured the community. The Edgars’ legal team spent the next two years interviewing Neodesha residents and officials, gathering documents, and investigating the contamination with its own engineers. They discovered that the plume of pollution beneath the town was much bigger and much more toxic than BP had acknowledged. In fact, their consultant’s studies found that there was a layer of “pure petrochemical sludge” riding above the groundwater, a poisonous plume that was up to two feet thick in several places, and was measured at almost six feet thick at one test well.
BP’s attorneys, meanwhile, maneuvered to have the case dismissed or moved to federal court, without success. During the discovery process, the company’s legal teams—from Sidley Austin, led by Westerfield; and from Squire, Sanders & Dempsey of Los Angeles, led by former military lawyer Steven A. Lamb—inadvertently turned over the memo outlining BP’s strategy, the one that Westerfield had dubbed “The Book of Common Prayer.” When the Edgars inquired about it, Westerfield moved that it be sealed in the court file, arguing that it was a confidential document covered by attorney-client privilege.
Because the memo was sent to BP’s “community relations team,” including public relations manager Rybarczyk and the community relations manager for one of BP’s contractors, the RETEC Group, David Edgar argued in court that “The Book of Common Prayer” was clearly a public relations strategy. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” Edgar argued before District Judge Daniel D. Creitz, who was presiding over the case. “There’s been an extensive disclosure.” Edgar added, “And I think here this document, as I said, because of its content is shocking. And I don’t think that’s the kind of document that fairness would require the return of. I think it’s evidence of the fraud we have alleged.”
Creitz ended up granting BP’s request for the document to be sealed, but the cat was literally out of the bag. In the Edgars’ view, the memo proved that BP had perpetrated a fraud.
While the legal work went on, the lawsuit wasn’t in the local news very much, but it was still on many people’s minds. Some were hopeful for a cleanup; others were angry and resentful toward Lucille Campbell. After she wrote a newsletter about her baby Gretta, saying the lawsuit might finally bring some justice for Gretta and other children in Neodesha who had died or contracted serious illnesses, Lucille received an anonymous note in July 2006 that pierced her heart like a knife. The typed letter read:
WHEN YOUR BABY DAUGHTER IS EXHUMED FOR EXAMINATION, IT WILL BE FOUND THAT LEUKEMIA DID NOT KILL HER BUT YOU DID THE EVIL ACT BY YOUR OWN HAND.
Lucille was crushed. Was this an attempt at intimidation by BP, she wondered, to try to give her a taste of what was to come if the case went to trial? She broke down and sobbed after reading the letter, then became more determined than ever. “Gretta would be forty-three now but will always be a baby in my heart,” she wrote in a letter to a local church newspaper a few weeks later. “I have cried more than once over babies’ and children’s obituaries I see in the paper. There are far too many of them. The major reason I fight the deadly pollution is because of the children. It appears the truths I’m speaking out about are getting too close to home.”
Two months after the anonymous letter was sent, Judge Creitz, following a hearing in his courtroom in Iola, about forty miles north of Neodesha, certified the lawsuit against BP as a class action, making all owners of property above the contaminated plume eligible to participate as plaintiffs. The trial was set for August 2007.
Copyright © 2011 by Mike Magner
Meet the Author
Mike Magner has been a journalist for more than 35 years, including 10 years as a reporter at the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Gazette, 15 years in the Washington Bureau for Newhouse Newspapers, and four years as an editor and writer at the National Journal. He was born and raised in South Bend, Indiana, graduated from Georgetown University, and lives outside Washington, D.C., with his wife, son and daughter. He began reporting on BP’s refinery pollution in Neodesha, Kansas, in 2002 and continues to follow the community’s efforts to require a cleanup of the contaminated site.
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