For years, Lucille Campbell told anyone who would listen that pollution from the old Standard Oil refinery, shuttered in 1970, was killing people here.
Too many friends and neighbors were dying at too young an age, so Campbell scoured reports and microfilm for information, distributed makeshift newsletters and submitted opinion articles to local newspapers. She was so single-minded that people here started calling her that "crazy old lady."
"People were getting sick and dying, and nobody would listen," said Campbell, 66, a former teacher who believes her infant daughter who died 40 years ago might have been a victim.
For years Campbell was a lone voice, but more recently town leaders began to take notice, too. In March, the town filed a lawsuit in state District Court alleging that the refinery had poisoned the groundwater and soil and that its managers covered up the pollution to avoid liability. The suit sought monetary damages and an expedited cleanup.
The refinery's current owner, BP PLC, one of the world's largest oil companies, maintains that the plume of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene in the groundwater beneath schools, churches and nursing homes poses no risk because the town's drinking water comes from elsewhere. The company has a cleanup agreement with the state, and BP representatives have gone door to door talking to residents and taking air samples to determine risks.
"We recognize the contamination issues," said Ronald D. Rybarczyk, a spokesman for BP. "We haven't tried to dodge that. The questions we asked are 'Are people drinking the water?' and 'Are people exposed?' and the answer is no."
What's happening in Neodesha is but one example of how communities across the nation that once hosted refineries are suing for damages, pressing companies to buy their homes and seeking out federal health agencies to determine whether exposure to chemicals from old refineries is making them sick. Many residents said that while they knew the operations were dirty, they did not believe, until recently, that they could be life-threatening.
Over the past two decades, more than 170 of these refineries have closed, according to a recent survey of industry, government and private reports by the Washington-based Natural Resources News Service, which covers the environment.
Many, like the refinery here, were built around 1900. While some of the old sites have been redeveloped, most remain bound by government regulatory agreements to clean up toxic pollution in the groundwater and soil. In the Kansas City, Mo., suburb of Sugar Creek, home to another former Standard Oil refinery, several residents have filed individual suits against BP, claiming that years of exposure to chemicals gave them cancer. The refinery there was shut down in 1982 by Amoco, one of Standard Oil's offshoots, after 78 years of operation.
"Any refinery that's been in operation even 10 or 15 years is sitting on gigantic underground lakes of diesel and crude oil," said Denny Larson, director of the San Francisco-based Refinery Reform Campaign.
His group provides technical assistance and advice to residents who live near refineries. The campaign helped residents of Norco, La., move to new homes to flee the pollution. The sites are contaminated, Larson said, because many regulators and residents ignored health and environmental concerns.
"America's refineries and its gasoline are considered sacred cows because they are the number one things we love: our gas and our cars," Larson said.
Neodesha has a closer connection than most. With 2,800 residents, this southeastern Kansas town is proud of its links to the oil patch. It is home to the first commercial oil well west of the Mississippi River. A 40-foot replica of that well towers at one end of Main Street.
The connection to Standard Oil, the defunct oil giant, runs deep.
Retirees and their offspring fondly recall the company as a benevolent corporate citizen that sponsored youth sports teams and provided good-paying jobs that financed new cars and houses, vacations and college tuitions.
But Neodesha's legal complaint accuses this once-revered company of intentionally releasing hazardous materials, including benzene -- known to cause cancer -- into the air and groundwater, and hiding the dangers from residents. Mayor J.D. Cox acknowledged that the decision to sue was difficult. The site, home to the refinery from the late 1800s to 1970, now houses several new businesses.
"This is a conservative area," said Cox, the town's mayor for seven years. "Filing suit is not something you just do. There is a level of trust in our community because they were Standard Oil, and they had a long history here."
The city's hand was forced, Cox said, because two years of negotiation for an acceptable cleanup and compensation plan proved fruitless.
"We weren't getting anywhere," said Cox, referring to talks since 2002 between city and county leaders and BP officials.
That was also the initial experience of elected leaders in Sugar Creek, which is the site of a Standard Oil refinery that closed in 1982. The town filed suit several years ago before settling on an agreement that will pay the town $11.5 million over the next several years to redevelop the old site as an industrial park.
A group of residents near the site, organized as Cleanup (Citizens Learning Everything about Amoco, Negligence and Underground Pollution), also sued, and several hundred owners settled in 1999 for average payments of about $25,000. The situation in Neodesha appears a long way from resolution.
Standard Oil loyalists were incredulous and dismissive of the argument that town leaders went to court out of necessity to break an impasse in negotiations with BP. While well aware that harmful chemicals had long ago contaminated the groundwater, critics said that it was downright disloyal and an affront to decency to ask the court to decide the matter.
"You have put a gash in our hearts and our very spirits," said a recent letter from 39 residents published in the Neodesha Daily Derrick. "Don't you realize what you're doing to our town. . . . If people were contemplating moving here, they certainly would have second thoughts. We think you should . . . quit dividing the town."
One of those people was DeWayne Prosser, a pastor and a Wilson County commissioner, who took the suit as a personal slight. Members of his family, including his father, worked at the refinery and assured him that whatever contamination exists was an accident and that there is no scientific link between the contamination and cancer cases.
Prosser said that he felt that the city should have continued to negotiate through a committee set up for that purpose. "We were making progress," he said.
Marci Culley, who did doctoral work on the Sugar Creek project and was a Cleanup member, found, after years of study and interviews with all parties involved, that the most successful methods for residents to get what they wanted were also the most controversial: trespassing, e-mail campaigns and seeking news media attention.
"To be effective, folks have to find their own way," she said. "The planned opportunities for public participation largely block public participation because all the important decisions appeared to have been made behind closed doors."
That's why Campbell is a little skeptical of the suit filed by the city.
"If they file a lawsuit, they can settle out of court, but the issue of the sick and dying would never be addressed," Campbell said. "If this stuff can make you sick, people need to know."