Years ago, before pipelines conveyed natural gas across the county, gas was a locally manufactured product. Factories located all over the country would take coal and process it into natural gas. The result was natural gas which was sold to the public, and the leftover, sticky coal tar waste.
Gas producing companies did different things with the resulting coal tar. Some provided it as fill to local contractors.
Others sold it as roof tar and weed killer. Now we know that coal tar can make you very ill.
Coal tar can contain a variety of chemicals, but it is uniformly called a carcinogen, something that can cause cancer. For this reason, coal tar cleanups are taking place everywhere in the United States.
The cleanup in Taylorville, Illinois, came too late for three families with children suffering from neuroblastoma - a rare form of cancer. In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a multi-million dollar judgment against a local gas utility that, according to a jury, was legally responsible for cancers in four young children. Three are ill, one died.
The case reveals how American companies sometimes fail to understand the potential human impacts of their actions. Or alternatively, fail to care.
The utility, and its predecessor, had been making gas at its Taylorville plant since the late 1800s. Coal tar was stored in underground tanks.
In 1980 a federal law required that companies report known hazardous locations to the government. An internal gas company memo reflected that the company elected not to report because it saw "no advantage" and was concerned about "potential consequences."
The contamination was discovered by a contractor in 1985 during site excavation to install a septic system line. Then, the state regulators were notified.
While a detailed air monitoring program was implemented by the company, it mysteriously lost all of the data when litigation started. Instead, the company only had air monitoring summary information which was produced for trial. Did the actual data become lost? Was it destroyed as standard document retention practices? Or did the company intentionally destroy the data so the jury could never see it?
In 1987 the site cleanup manager expressed great concern that air emissions could injure nearby residents. Truck drivers removing the contaminated waste complained of nausea and were instructed to wear masks. But the residents were never relocated, nor were they in any manner protected.
Taylorville recorded 520 live births in 1988 and statistically neuroblastoma should have occurred one time every 29 years. However, it occurred four times between March 1989 and August 1991.
These children were no different from other kids. They lived in homes just like other kids. Unfortunately, the jury found that because a utility permitted dangerous chemicals to remain in the ground for many years and because it did not ensure safe conditions when it finally removed the material, four children developed this rare cancer.
Individuals and companies need to learn from this unfortunate case. These toxic threats are real. Companies have a duty to protect innocent people from these hazards.