Settlement checks, vindication at last in Clark refinery case
BY JOANNE VON ALROTH Correspondent September 22, 2011 7:40PM
Rev. Peter Contreras, Bob Vaci, Tom Madrigal, Joan Silke and Nancy Madrigal, all members of the Good Neighbor Committee of South Cook County stand outside of the former site of the Clark Oil Refinery at 131st and Kedzie in Blue Island, IL on Wednesday September 21, 2011. People effected by the Rosolowski v. Clark Refining & Marketing, Inc. case recently received a settlement | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 23, 2012 3:53AM
Sometimes, vindication comes in the mail.
That’s exactly what 6,000 Blue Island-area residents began receiving this month — silent but potent vindication. It’s been arriving in the form of checks for property damage inflicted over the years by the now-shuttered Clark Oil refinery at 131st Street and Kedzie Avenue in unincorporated Worth Township.
The checks are the residents’ portion of the $60 million settlement reached in July 2010 with the refinery’s current owner, San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp., after a 15-year court battle. Eligible residents reportedly received from $200 to $18,000 each.
“This definitely brings a sense of closure,” said Joan Silke, a south suburban activist and one of the first to protest the refinery’s emissions in the early 1990s. “I’m genuinely happy for people. This has taken a long time, but we were right, and they had to pay.”
“It was a great feeling (when the check arrived),” said Nancy Madrigal, who worked closely with Silke to improve conditions at the refinery. “This lawsuit was the only recourse that could get us the change we needed, and the check meant, ‘This phase is done.’ It’s a resolution.”
“I’m relieved,” said Tom Finnegan, a retired insurance claims adjuster who received a check. “I guess it hasn’t really set in yet, but I did feel relieved.”
Valero had no comment on the settlement payments, company spokesman Bill Day said.
Silke, who once lived about 500 feet downwind of the refinery, spent years lobbying Clark to improve safety conditions for residents and the refinery’s 300 workers. When Clark resisted, Silke helped found the watchdog group Good Neighbor Committee of South Cook County in the early 1990s.
Some area residents eagerly joined Silke’s efforts to slow the “snowstorm” of noxious gases and particles. Others, though, saw her as a menace: Silke said she withstood intimidation and death threats from refinery employees and other residents who feared her efforts would cause Clark’s closure and hurt the local economy.
“Joan really took the brunt of the early criticism,” said Madrigal, who worked closely with Silke. “She put herself at the forefront of the abuse.”
But more residents came over to Silke’s side in October 1994 when 15 tons of catalyst dust from the refinery sent about 50 Eisenhower High School students to the hospital with dizziness and breathing difficulties. That was followed by a March 1995 explosion at the plant that killed two workers. The explosion also broke windows and cracked foundations of homes in the area.
Kathleen Young had a front-row view of the hell-like blast from her house on Everett Street.
“It was so huge, my daughter fell out of bed, and my husband flew down the stairs,” she said. “I live so close, I saw the destruction firsthand — it was horrible. I lost half the stuff in my back yard, and all the paint on my car. And that was just stuff — you couldn’t open the door and breathe.
“When Joan showed up at my door with a petition, I said right away, ‘I’m on board.’ ”
A lengthy legal process
Growing support didn’t solve the problem quickly, though. Lawsuits were filed on behalf of the injured students after the catalyst dust incident and on behalf of the two men killed in the explosion.
As more residents began seeking legal redress for property damage, their complaint received class-action lawsuit status in 2000.
Silke’s critics were proven right in October 2001 when the company, which had changed its name to Premcor, closed the refinery and people lost their jobs. Some were bitter, but many considered the closure a huge plus for the village.
“Clark needed to go for a long, long time,” Young said.
Four years later, Valero bought Premcor. In November 2005, jurors awarded property damage claimants $120 million, and the injured students received $100,000.
Residents suffered a reversal a year later when Valero appealed and Cook County Circuit Judge Cheryl L. Starks dismissed the case, ruling that the 6,000 plaintiffs hadn’t proved they’d all suffered the same level of nuisance. Valero then began approaching plaintiffs individually, offering them pennies on the dollar for their damage claims.
Furious, the plaintiffs appealed the decision. In June 2008, the Illinois Appellate Court overturned the decertification 2-1, ruling that a class-action suit cannot be dissolved after a jury reaches a verdict and sent it back to Starks to be retried.
The wrongful death suit filed on behalf of the two men killed in the explosion was settled in March 2009 for $12 million.
Valero and the plaintiffs agreed to the $60 million settlement last year rather than risk years of further litigation. One-third of the settlement paid plaintiffs’ legal fees, and the remainder is being distributed to residents who proved they lived in the refinery’s footprint between October 1993 and Jan. 31, 2001, and suffered verifiable property damage.
“It reminded me of David and Goliath,” said the Rev. Peter Contreras, pastor of Blue Island’s Bethel-Pentecostal Church and a longtime resident who grew up in the village’s “Gypsytown” — an area on 131st Street that included the refinery. “When the settlement was reached, I made announcements at church so people knew about it and could get their claims in.”
Many thought that meant the settlement payments were forthcoming.
Not so. First, Starks assigned Preferred Administrative Services, of Northbrook, to verify the settlement claims. Then the firm set up its Clark Claims Administration division to deal with the mountain of paperwork needed to check the veracity of the 6,000 claims related to the refinery: Each claim had to prove the claimant’s residency, or relation to a deceased claimant, and the property damages incurred.
Silke often got late-night phone calls from distressed people asking if she knew when they might see a settlement payment.
The verification process wrapped up late this spring, and Clark Claims Administration sent claimants approval or rejection notices. Claimants who received rejection notices had a period to appeal the decision. Once all appeals were exhausted, the checks were issued.
While nearly one-quarter of Blue Island’s residents received a settlement check, the money will benefit everyone in the community, Mayor Don Peloquin said.
“It gives everyone a boost, especially given this difficult economy,” Peloquin said. “People will be paying bills, replacing cars, buying new refrigerators, fixing their houses — that spreads the wealth. It’s putting millions back into Blue Island.”
“It will definitely help me skip the dip-in (to savings),” Finnegan said.
Those who received the checks should remember, though, that their settlement money is taxable.
“Uncle Sam is going to need his cut, so put aside some to pay the taxes,” Contreras said.
Silke, who now lives in Worth, and Madrigal said they are amazed they were able to affect so many lives with their activism. And both vow to keep going.
“It’s an ongoing mission,” said Madrigal, who calls herself “Tonto” to Silke’s “Lone Ranger.” “But there’s still cleanup to be done, and that will take years and years.”
The refinery’s 170-acre site sits vacant save for some rusted tanks, an old repair shop and stores of gasoline awaiting sale. Valero is responsible for site cleanup, which hasn’t yet started. But residents are eyeing the spot for redevelopment.
Some have suggested a shopping center, while others urge light industry.
No matter what ends up on the site, it will have to be green, Peloquin said.
“We have to look at the future,” he said. “With the riverwalk and the Cal Sag bike trails extending, we’ll want whatever comes in to fit in with the environment as well as bring revenue to the village.”
In the short term, Silke said she looks forward to more people opening their mailboxes and finding their settlement checks. And she’s waiting for that last, shrill ring in the middle of the night.
“With the checks arriving,” she said, “I think my 3 a.m. phone calls are going to end.”