By JO ANN HUSTIS
JOLIET, Ill. — ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil refiner, is apologizing for any inconvenience caused by an Oct. 19 aerial-borne oil spill at its Joliet Refinery near Elwood, Ill.
The apology was in response to a joint lawsuit and request for a temporary injunction filed on Oct. 31 against ExxonMobil by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow.
The mid-morning spill involved the release of crude oil hydrocarbon byproducts into the atmosphere from relief valves. The oil residue traveled northeast on the wind and fell to the ground, including farmland, as far east of the refinery as Illinois 53. Odors from the spill were reported as far northeast as Cook County, an ExxonMobil news release stated.
No injuries were listed by the company, which stated the oil could be a nuisance, but was not a health, inhalation or flammability hazard. Air readings at a nearby school were negative, although some students complained of headaches and odors, the release stated.
In response to the joint complaint and injunction request, ExxonMobil spokesman Tricia Simpson noted in a Nov. 2 news release the company has closely worked with local, state, and federal officials from the time of the initial response, recovery, and investigation.
“The incident is under investigation in cooperation with state and federal regulators,” she said. “ExxonMobil fully concurs with the requirements in the Attorney General’s agreed interim order, most of which were identified and voluntarily initiated in the 12 days since the incident.”
The four-count legal complaint alleges environmental violations “after apparent operational errors caused a burst of oil mist to be released into the surrounding area … as a result of procedural failures at the refinery’s coker unit.”
The oil mixture fell onto homes and farms within a four-mile radius of the refinery on Interstate 55 and Arsenal Road, the Madigan-Glasgow news release noted. Arsenal Road was closed because the oil mixture created a slippery pavement. Oil residue was also found in a nearby creek and along the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Elwood farm owner Richard Tyler said the Madigan-Glasgow announcement of the court filing identified the release as “an oil-like spray that covered houses and crops as far away as six miles to the east.”
“Some people near me (on Illinois 53) had to power-wash their homes and roofs to clean off the oily product,” he said. “My brother, who lives near me, said that when he and his wife wiped their hands on their lawn, their hands felt and smelled of the light diesel fuel-like coating. They had to use soap and water to get the diesel or asphalt smell off their hands.
“I smelled it at our place that morning (Oct. 21). Then the farmers were told that since the corn and soybeans were contaminated, they couldn’t haul (the crops) to the local elevator. However, ExxonMobil didn’t tell many of the farmers for quite a few days.”
If granted, the preliminary injunction would give ExxonMobil seven days to investigate the release and report its findings to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and to submit a detailed work schedule for improvements.
“ExxonMobil must accept full responsibility for the harm this oily mist caused our environment as well as the farms, houses, vehicles, streets and other personal and public property in our surrounding communities,” Glasgow said. “The preliminary injunction we seek … ensures that this incident will be thoroughly investigated and ExxonMobil will clean up damaged properties and natural resources.”
Under the injunction, ExxonMobil would have to report all pollutants and quantities involved in the incident, and collect water and soil samples from the creek and Arsenal Road for analysis.
Also, ExxonMobil must identify the residents, landowners and local government agencies contacted by the company after the oil release, and provide equipment maintenance and inspection reports for the pressure safety valves involved in the incident. ExxonMobil would spell out the procedures in restarting the coker unit involved in the incident.
A status hearing was scheduled for Nov. 2 at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet. An outcome was not known at press time.