• Associated Press, 8-31-12: Kansas Supreme Court sides with BP over dirtied town
• KOAM-TV, Pittsburg, KS, 10-27-10: BP appealing civil judgment against them in case against the city of Neodesha
• Kansas City Business Journal, 5-20-10: Small Kansas town Neodesha makes its claim for a BP cleanup
• Washington Post, 6-6-04: Towns that grew on oil count the costs
A historic Kansas town built by Big Oil and poisoned by more than 70 years of refining operations has been left to die a slow death after losing an eight-year legal battle with BP.
The city of Neodesha, in southeastern Kansas midway between Kansas City and Oklahoma City, filed a lawsuit against BP in 2004 demanding a cleanup of toxic petrochemicals that permeate the groundwater beneath virtually all the homes and businesses in the city of 2,500. But after the longest trial in state history and an appeals process that lasted nearly five years, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled in August 2012 that BP had no further liabilities in Neodesha.
BP spent millions of dollars defending the lawsuit, and in the process divided the community into two camps: those for and those against a retired schoolteacher, Lucille Campbell, who was convinced the pollution beneath Neodesha was poisoning residents, especially young children.
Neodesha had been the site of the first commercial oil well west of the Mississippi River in 1891. Six years later, in 1897, Standard Oil Co. built a refinery in the small town, which proceeded to grow into a thriving city supplying gasoline and diesel to the Midwest and special fuels to the U.S. military during two world wars.
The refinery also grew into a sprawling complex of boilers, processing equipment, storage tanks and industrial buildings spread over 320 acres, operated with few environmental controls by Amoco, one of the regional companies spawned by the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911. It hummed along for 73 years, until 1970, when Congress began passing strict environmental laws in response to a growing public backlash against industrial pollution.
At that point, Amoco simply walked away from Neodesha, giving the city $5,000 to raze the refinery buildings and open an industrial park on the site. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered tests on the soil and groundwater at the site, and when both were found to be heavily contaminated, parts of the old refinery were fenced off and sealed with a clay cover, and monitoring wells were installed. Parts of the site were redeveloped, though, with a cabinetmaker, a boat manufacturer and a few other companies moving in to keep the struggling city alive after Amoco left.
In 1998, British Petroleum bought Amoco in the largest industrial merger in history up to that point. Engineers were dispatched to Neodesha to determine what BP had acquired there, and by all indications they were stunned by what they found. Deadly chemicals like benzene and lead were found floating on top of the aquifer in a layer six feet thick in some places. But rather than develop plans for a full cleanup, BP hired a former KDHE engineer to help devise a response that would simply meet minimum state standards. Some contaminants were pumped out in a show of action, while BP assured the city that the pollution posed no threat to public health, since the community drew its water supply from the nearby Vertigris River, and not the underground aquifer.
Campbell, who grew up in Neodesha and lived across the street from the refinery when it was operating in the 1960s, was skeptical of BP’s claims. She knew that oily water often appeared on the streets and playgrounds of the city whenever heavy rains or melting snow pushed the groundwater upward, and many homes had old wells or leaky basements that could serve as conduit for toxic gases from below. There was still plenty of exposure to toxic chemicals, she reasoned, even though the refinery had been closed for decades.
Campbell researched state health statistics and found that the average age of death in Neodesha was lower than in most other Kansas cities. She scoured local newspaper records and interviewed residents, and found dozens of cases of childhood cancer and deaths from rare illnesses in the town. Worst of all, Campbell uncovered records that showed her own infant daughter, who died suddenly at 6 months of age when her family lived by the operating refinery in 1963, had a white blood-cell count indicating she had a deadly form of leukemia – something her doctors never revealed.
Lucille Campbell became a senior version of Erin Brockovich in Neodesha, pushing the city hard for two years before it filed its lawsuit against BP demanding a cleanup of the toxic groundwater. For her efforts, Campbell was bullied and badgered by BP in an attempt to turn the community against her – a gut-wrenching story described for the first time in Poisoned Legacy: The Human Cost of BP’s Rise to Power.
After the state Supreme Court sided with BP in the summer of 2012 – more than a decade after Campbell began campaigning for her town to be cleaned up – Campbell refused to give up. “The concerns remain about the same,” she wrote in a newsletter she distributed around the city after the court ruling came down. “Incidence of cancer and MS rates of school staff and students, cancer and heart attacks of industrial park workers, pollution under school grounds, poor condition of water and sewer lines, possible effect of pollution on intelligence, possible negative effects on animal life, and negative economic factors.”
Whether those concerns will ever be addressed is a very open question now.