The toxic spills in Sugar Creek's past haunt Gilbert Leach
Gilbert Leach looked for his boyhood as his wife drove through Sugar Creek.
He’s 63 and hadn’t been back to the town for years. It was all there — the streets, old buildings, ballfield. The creek where he and his brother and their friends played on summer days.
He rode quietly — “like with a heaviness,” his wife would say later.
“I tried to relax, but so much happened here,” Gilbert Leach said.
His older brother, Rick Leach — the person he looked up to most growing up — died in 1988 of lymphoma. Rick’s wife, whose family lived just a few doors down from the Leach house when they were all young, died later of leukemia.
The deaths were part of a wave of more than 40 lawsuits a decade ago alleging that spills and leaks at an Amoco refinery allowed pollutants, including benzene, to poison the land and water around Sugar Creek.
The refinery, which opened in 1904, shut down in the 1980s. It has since been dismantled and the site cleaned. A gasoline terminal operates there now.
Mayor Matt Mallinson said Sugar Creek receives regular monitoring reports and those show no dangerous levels.
Gilbert Leach long ago moved to Colorado, thinking he had escaped what happened to his brother. Then he got sick. Acute myeloid leukemia, the same as with many of the earlier cases, including his sister-in-law. He’s since been through chemotherapy, radiation and a stem cell transplant.
His lawyer, Lon Walters, said the initial deaths and lawsuits happened a long time ago, but no one should be surprised to hear of related new cases.
“I don’t think Sugar Creek is over yet,” said Walters, who handled most of the earlier cases. He compared benzene to asbestos in that exposure can cause illness many years later.
Using similar wording as the other lawsuits, the one for Gilbert Leach, filed March 29 in Jackson County Circuit Court, alleges that BP Corp. (which took over Amoco in 1998) “intentionally dumped or discharged and otherwise allowed enormous quantities of petroleum and other hazardous pollutants to escape,” causing Leach to be exposed to benzene through inhalation and absorption through his skin.
BP declined comment this week.
‘Rough on our family’
Walters’ first Sugar Creek case came in 2005 in the death of a woman named Nancy Ryan. The jury found in favor of Ryan’s husband and awarded $13.3 million in actual damages. Before punitive damages could be decided, the company settled for an undisclosed amount.
Walters said the strength of the case and those that followed was being able to use internal Amoco documents to show that the company was aware of health hazards and that the company acknowledged its “history of noncompliance and our poor record.”
Another document showed that the company knew by 1950 that benzene posed a health risk and was linked to blood diseases such as leukemia, multiple myeloma and lymphoma.
The lawsuits alleged that the refinery was leaking millions of gallons of oil and gasoline through a maze of underground pipes, allowing harmful pollutants to get into air, soil and surface water, and that company officials knew it.
According to Walters, one leak was putting 42 gallons an hour into the soil and groundwater.
Company officials disputed the claims but settled many of the cases before trial.
Howard Trabue, who is another Leach brother and who worked on crews that dismantled the refinery, said nearly everybody who lived in or near Sugar Creek knew somebody who got sick.
“There were too many,” he said, then started rattling off names, ending with: “Rick would still be around. His wife, too. Now, we got this going on with Gil.
“This whole thing’s been rough on our family.”
Gilbert Leach, who worked as an emergency dispatcher for a utility in Englewood, Colo., got sick in April 2011.
“It had been so long that I thought I was going to be a lucky one,” he said.
His initial hospital stay lasted 34 days. Chemo and radiation treatments followed. In February 2014, he underwent a stem cell transplant. Doctors say he is now cancer-free.
“But he is not worry-free or pain-free and it can come back anytime,” said his wife, Tracy.
He also is unable to return to work.
Walters said Leach’s acute myeloid leukemia is the same as 25 percent of the earlier cases, so he doesn’t know why the company has refused to settle Leach’s lawsuit.
“I’m perplexed at that,” Walters said. “I think it unfortunate that at the same time he has to battle his health issue, he also has to simultaneously wage a courtroom battle, too.”
Lots of memories
On top of the angst of coming back, Leach, who is on long-term disability, returned to Sugar Creek recently for a funeral.
Another brother, Harold Trabue, had died in a motorcycle accident.
Leach was surprised to see tanker trucks still running from the old refinery, hauling gasoline.
“I thought it was all shut down,” he said.
Lots of memories here for this man. He still smiles when he talks of those long-ago summer days when he and his brother and their friends played in the creeks and swam in the ponds around Sugar Creek.
He told of the many days when his mother, who did ironing and took in laundry, would holler to the kids to close the windows when the smell of the refinery blew toward the house, which was actually on the other side of U.S. 24, outside the city limits.
He shrugged at the memory.
“We just thought it smelled bad,” he said.
But that carefree attitude changed when Rick died.
“When the call came that he’d died, it was like somebody reached inside me and yanked something out,” Leach said.
“The whole family changed after that.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182