Before Teddy Cobb died, he left his wife a bag of ash. It was gray, about the consistency of baby powder, and known among the guys who dealt with it mainly for its ability to turn shovels green.
When the cancer he’d been living with for almost seven years eventually took him, Cobb’s wife had been caring for him, physically lifting her husband to help him dress and get into his wheelchair. In the mornings, she would set a “throw up bucket” next to the bed; throughout the day, she oversaw the 75 medications he was taking; and at night, they would lie in bed, hold each other, and pray.
The cancer started in his kidney. Headaches gave some of the first hints that it had metastasized into his nasal cavity. From there it spread elsewhere and into his bones. A doctor would later write that “despite extensive and heroic efforts at treatment,” he died at the age of 50.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
- AIRBORNE: In 2007, ConocoPhillips shut down its coke calciner at the Santa Maria Refinery following a $900,000 fine from the SLO County Air Pollution Control District. That further resulted in closure of the baghouse, which has been associated with health problems for employees who worked there.
At the time Cobb died, the ash that he believed had stricken him with cancer was no longer at his former workplace. Even the baghouse that produced the ash was gone: shut down after fines and an order from county air pollution officials against ConocoPhillips, back when that division of the company operated the Santa Maria Refinery before transferring it to Phillips 66.
Years after Cobb’s death, his friends and coworkers were on deck to testify on behalf of his widow, who had filed a claim with the California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. But days before their scheduled appearances, they were called off.
They didn’t know why, but they suspected that Cobb’s widow and the company had reached a settlement, meaning more details about the baghouse and its workers would never reach beyond a few files and early depositions.
They were right. The case ended in a $325,000 settlement, paid out of ConocoPhillips’ liability insurance.
In a handwritten statement included in Cobb’s workers’ compensation claim, his widow wrote that “Conoco Phillips took Teddy’s life, in trade for getting your the job done, cut and dry, that’s the way it was.
“I did everything in my power to keep my husband alive,” her statement continued. “ConocoPhillips not only took my husband from me, they took my best friend. I live every day in misery. I miss him so much. I just feel that Teddy’s death should of [sic] been prevented.”
(Cobb’s family members did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this story.)
As far as some of Cobb’s former coworkers can tell, it was the closest any employee—either past or present, dead or alive—had come to answering the question of whether their work at the refinery had made them sick, even if the root cause of Cobb’s death was never definitively proven. Their chief suspect, as well as Cobb’s, was the ash produced in the baghouse.
Pulling up toward the end of the line at the Santa Maria Refinery, petroleum coke solids were refined through a kiln-firing process. Gases produced from the burning coke were sucked out and routed through a multi-story baghouse, essentially a series of filters that pulled out solids to be recycled back into the refining process. The resulting ash had to be periodically cleaned out, by hand, using a batch of workers who would reportedly come out of the baghouse covered in the stuff from head to toe.
Cobb wasn’t the first baghouse worker to die from cancer, nor the first person to become the subject of a workers’ compensation investigation. But when workers at the refinery talk about the baghouse, they talk about Cobb.
No employee contacted for this article agreed to be named, but they told the same story. One employee—identified here as “Carl”—remembered how it felt finishing a four-day stint cleaning out the baghouse before breaking off to other jobs.
“You’d feel rotten sick,” Carl remembered.
Some of those workers have also been diagnosed with various cancers, and some have flirted with the idea of filing cases of their own, though no one else has.
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the guys who worked in the baghouse carried out their jobs with few protective measures and—in some cases—fewer concerns about the materials they were handling. At first, they went in armed only in their regular clothes and paper masks.
Another employee (“Mark”) recalled a coworker—a “gentlemen who is no longer with us”—who had cut a hole in his mask so he could continue to smoke while working in the baghouse.
A lot has changed since those early days, but it’s tough to blame anyone who thought so little of the potential hazard that he carried out his job with a cigarette shoved through his mask. No one seemed to know what was in the ash, at first. Mark said that as far as the information presented from Material Safety Data Sheets, the company “kind of muddled down” any potential hazards.
Eventually, some of the workers began to raise a stink about their safety. And in response, the company brought out a doctor to quell their concerns.
“We had a safety meeting, and a company doctor came out and tried to tell us that peanut butter was worse for us,” Mark said.
Other workers confirmed that account.
“For the first few years, we didn’t have anything except for that doctor that came in and pretty much told us that,” said another employee (“John”). “And after the meeting, we walked away kind of laughing.”
In the early 2000s, after ConocoPhillips took over operations of the refinery, the company tone started to change—not gradually, but reportedly because of one guy. A shuffling of workers placed the baghouse area under the supervision of a man named Richard Jankowski. And when Jankowski stepped in, according to people who remember working with him, he immediately mandated better worker protections.
“Mr. Jankowski changed our way of life,” Carl said.
Rather than enter the baghouse in work clothes, they began wearing protective coveralls; instead of the paper masks, they began wearing pressurized helmets.
“It wasn’t until 2000 that we really found out that it was more dangerous than what they thought, and what we should do to take care of ourselves,” John said.
Jankowski has since retired and relocated to Texas, about an hour’s drive from Dallas. When reached by phone, he was reluctant to talk, and explained that he retired more than a decade ago. He said that Phillips 66 has a spokesman who could answer any questions. When I explained that some of the older workers at the refinery had gotten sick, and at least two had died, he said, “I ended up with cancer. I don’t know if it was related to my time at the refinery.”
John was diagnosed with cancer as well.
“I really always appreciated working out there,” he said. “Later on, when I got sick, I gotta say this: I think I got sick from that place, sure. And I think that I did get a raw deal.”
John talked with a few attorneys in hopes of filing his own case, but no one would touch it.
Mark also received a cancer diagnosis, and pondered aloud about his time in the baghouse, “I don’t know if that could have caused it.”
Based on the workers who could be reached—some didn’t return calls requesting an interview, while another employee simply hung up upon learning the nature of the call—some believed the company settled Cobb’s case because doing so kept it out of court and kept more people from coming forward.
“I was told they don’t want it to go to court because they don’t know how many other cases [there are],” Mark said.
ConocoPhillips referred New Times to Phillips 66, which declined to comment for this story. Company spokesman Dennis Nuss said in an email only that, “It is our practice to not comment on legal matters.” He didn’t respond to a subsequent request for comment on health matters.
There was at least one other case filed about two decades before Cobb’s case was settled, though the time that’s passed has erased many of its details.
Donald Goodwin’s sister, Linda Stewart, couldn’t remember much about her brother’s case against ConocoPhillips back in the mid-’90s. He started working at the refinery as a teenager and continued almost until the day he died. He was a smoker, but she remembered that his doctors believed the tumor in his lungs—it was about six pounds—was probably the result of the substances he was exposed to while working at the refinery.
“And he didn’t have to have all the safety equipment,” she said.
As to what happened with his case, Stewart wasn’t sure. Her best guess was that his cancer got too bad for him to continue.
“I think he was getting too sick by the time he went to see the lawyer,” she said.
However, she did hold on to a copy of his Jan. 21, 1994, deposition. At the time, Goodwin was pursuing a claim with the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board against Unocal, which was then overseeing operations at the refinery. The case number on the document was listed as “unassigned,” and a spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations found no record of Goodwin’s case. He said older documents are routinely destroyed. Goodwin’s attorney said she couldn’t remember much about it either.
- HEAVY METAL: Two elements, nickel and vanadium, were listed as prime suspects by attorneys representing one deceased ConocoPhillips employee. The substances have also appeared in cancer studies, pollution fines, and legal documents.
When he went on the record for his deposition, Goodwin was about four years into his cancer diagnosis, and about a year before his eventual death. Based on what one of his doctors told him, Goodwin believed his time at the refinery—from the age of 18 through his mid 30s—caused his lung cancer, despite smoking half a pack of cigarettes per day and later switching to chewing tobacco.
More specifically, Goodwin testified that he believed his cancer was most directly tied to an incident when he had to clean a fluid leak in a large fan. He also mentioned that he been exposed to nickel and vanadium. Later in his testimony, the attorney representing Unocal asked him to get back to the subject of nickel exposure.
“Oh, in this baghouse they have there,” Goodwin replied. “I did a lot of work on that, and they did say there was a lot of nickel and vanadium there. I don’t know how much. I have no idea.”
“And that was at—what did you call it?” Unocal’s attorney asked. “The baghouse?”
“Yeah. I did rebuild another fan over there, too. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t too much apart from the same time that all this occurred. You know, within a few months. I think within about six months or so, something like that. Or within the year maybe. Boy, that’s a long time ago. But, boy, that was a slimy deal.”
“I don’t have anything further,” was all the attorney said.
Almost exactly 20 years later, the topic of nickel and vanadium exposure would become one of the most crucial aspects of Cobb’s case as well.
‘You can’t handle the truth’
The transcript reveals that the delays were getting to be frustrating.
Robert Newell, who represented Cobb during a November 2013 deposition, raised an objection toward the end of testimony. He pointed out that this was the second deposition of Dr. Edward J. O’Neill, a West Hills-based physician, and he objected when the ConocoPhillips attorney wanted to go back to Cobb’s employer and ask for more specifics on what he might have been exposed to. Newell said he would continue to object “to any further reporting, any further deposition, any further delays in getting this case to trial.”
“Aren’t you interested in the truth, counsel?” the ConocoPhillips attorney asked.
“I’m interested in justice,” Newell said, according to a transcript. “You can’t handle the truth.”
At the time, attorneys on both sides were pulling O’Neill in opposite directions, regularly giving him new information that caused him to change his opinion. Though O’Neill waffled on whether Cobb died because of the exposure—mainly due to the unknown quantities of each exposure—he maintained that Cobb did work with materials that contained known carcinogens.
In August 2013, O’Neill wrote in the conclusion of a statement that Cobb’s death was occupationally related due to his exposure to carcinogens and later metastatic cancer diagnosis. About a month later, he reiterated that conclusion in a deposition. Then at the end of November, he reformed his opinion and said that the original kidney cancer was non-occupationally related. And as late as January 2014, O’Neill wrote that it was his opinion the cancer was occupationally related.
O’Neill cited a cluster of studies he had received from both sides in the case, which consisted mainly of “industrial hygiene jargon” and “an abundance of alphabet soup.”
“The only conclusion one can make from this information presented is that the potential of the applicant’s having developed the cancer from the specific exposures in question is somewhat remote but possible if one considers that the only material he was exposed to was the carbon/coke,” O’Neill wrote.
About two months later, ConocoPhillips settled with Cobb’s widow. In the final agreement, the words that ended the case were that “serious and good faith disputes exist. If any, the parties wish to avoid the pitfalls of litigation and defendant desires to buy its peace.”
When the case was settled, it left an ellipsis on the question of whether baghouse ash derived from carbon coke at the Santa Maria Refinery led to Cobb’s cancer and eventual death. More importantly, it left unanswered the question of whether other workers may have also had a claim: More people who worked in the baghouse were slated to testify just weeks before the settlement. Regardless of the soft finish to the case, it caught the attention of a few coworkers, particularly because of what Cobb learned before he died.
“Teddy, shortly before he passed away, got the new [Material Safety Data Sheet], and all four cancers that he had were caused by the baghouse ash,” Mark claimed.
From those sheets, O’Neill compiled a list of substances Cobb was exposed to during his time at the refinery. It includes a veritable cocktail of chemicals that stretch across 33 pages.
The list includes chemicals like shell xylene, with a note next to the entry that it’s associated with kidney cancer, specifically kidney cancer in rats from a chronic inhalation study, but the human effect isn’t known. Other chemicals, like “unbranded gasoline reformulated with ethanol,” also produced kidney tumors in rats, but epidemiological studies produced no extraordinary results in humans.
After he reviewed those data sheets and corresponding health literature, O’Neill said in his August 2013 letter that at the very least, “it is clear that sufficient interest in whether or not there is an increase in cancers related to exposure in the petroleum industry has been a topic of considerable investigation and discussion.”
And although O’Neill stressed that it would be almost impossible to determine the exact chemical dosage Cobb received, “coke/carbon black are known carcinogens, as are multiple others that I have elaborated in my extensive review of the materials safety data sheets.”
By the end of the case, the prime chemical suspects for Cobb’s cancer were nickel and vanadium.
During O’Neill’s November 2013 deposition, the ConocoPhillips attorney said, “Doctor, to summarize, this is a pretty big case—”
“Oh, I’m sure,” was O’Neill’s response.
And the amount ConocoPhillips paid to end the case was further indication of just how big it was. Cobb’s attorney, William Herreras, said that the $325,000 payout is a high settlement in a death case, in his experience. Even though Cobb’s widow claimed $246,816 in outstanding doctor’s bills alone, Herreras explained that the final agreement went beyond the normal settlement amount. In fact, the company paid the maximum death benefit of $250,000, plus an additional $100,000 for medical expenses.
Herreras said it was among the top settlements he’s seen.
The coke question
Along the Detroit River, hulking piles of petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” used to line its banks until as recently as August 2013, when a city-ordered deadline forced Detroit Bulk Storage to remove and dispose of the large mounds of jet-black clumps. According to articles by the Associated Press, the piles that resulted from petroleum refining by Marathon Oil appeared seemingly almost overnight, drawing backlash from residents who didn’t want to breathe in the dust that wafted into surrounding neighborhoods.
- IMAGES COURTESY OF SLO APCD
- UPS AND DOWNS: Phillips 66 proposed, and was granted, a request to increase its crude-oil refining by 10 percent in 2012. The request came after separate fines from the SLO County Air Pollution Control District and California Department of Toxic Substances Control related to its petroleum coke refining and storage.
Roughly 300 miles away, a similar situation led to similar health concerns in Chicago, where petcoke piles along the Calumet River were kicking up dust that drifted into the city’s Southeast Side.
The city of Chicago website states that inhaled petcoke can lead to short-term negative health effects and aggravate existing respiratory conditions, but as to whether it’s hazardous, the city cites a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study that finds, “There are no other known illnesses or health effects associated with petcoke dust.”
But the scientific literature on petcoke and other refined petroleum products can vary depending on where you look and what you’re looking for. According to a human health data chart in an EPA Hazard Characterization Document released in mid-2011, green (unprocessed) petcoke came up negative for carcinogenicity. However, the study provided no data for calcined petcoke, and assumed there was no hazard because of its similarity to the unprocessed stuff. Similarly, other studies curated by the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine found no significant increase in kidney cancer cases among petroleum plant workers.
Other studies reached different conclusions. An article published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reported that coking workers exposed to airborne hydrocarbons and “volatile organic compounds” showed increased levels of enzymes associated with liver damage that “may be caused by heavy inhalation exposure to [coke oven emissions].”
In Cobb’s case, the defense at one point argued that he had only been exposed to a substance called carbon black. However, Herreras cited a controlled study out of Montreal, “which showed an indication of excess risk for kidney cancer with exposure to carbon black in various industries.”
In Chicago, a number of environmental organizations—including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Law and Poverty Center, and the Sierra Club—submitted a 45-page comment letter to city officials. In it, they noted that petcoke contains heavy metals, such as nickel and vanadium, which are suspected carcinogens, according to the American Cancer Society.
Meleah Geertsma, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, said in an email that, yes, petcoke is often characterized as relatively low on the hazard scale as far as its capability to cause cancer, although she said there are studies that link green coke to lung inflammation and hardening.
“Of course, the failure to find impacts in a small set of studies isn’t necessarily determinative of the question; it may just mean that more and better research is needed,” she said.
As for calcined coke, she said “it looks like studies are particularly thin,” adding that in the 2011 EPA-released study, “there was only a single rat study looking at calcined coke, and ‘no data’ is noted numerous times through the doc regarding calcined coke.”
The study also notes that it was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.
“While I’m sure they followed correct study design procedures in the work that they did do, they certainly have less incentive to keep looking for a negative impact through subsequent studies than would, say, and independent academic researcher,” Geertsma said.
Fines and closures
“It’s still out there,” Mark said, then backtracked slightly. “Or, at least, it was two years ago.”
The “it” in this case was the baghouse ash. Mark said he came across some of it a few years back, but he was told that what he saw was probably mold.
Before the baghouse went offline, and while it was in the process of shutting down, some of the baghouse workers called the disposal area the boneyard.
“We dug a humungous hole … and all the toxic material and whatnot went into it,” Mark said. “And they covered that up.”
Disposing of that part of the facility came about amid multiple orders from multiple agencies.
As of April 2014, Phillips 66, which now operates the facility, had received its final signoff from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which stated that it had resolved a case stemming from a 2009 inspection. That inspection turned up illegally stored waste piles of coke products, which the DTSC ordered cleaned up in a late-2011 consent order against ConocoPhillips. According to the DTSC, the waste piles—which were left when Union Oil operated the facility—had high concentrations of nickel and vanadium.
The DTSC hit ConocoPhillips with a $46,096 bill for “illegally stored hazardous waste piles without a permit or other grant of authorization.”
About six years before that order, ConocoPhillips paid out $900,000 to the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control District (APCD). The payment was included as part of a settlement with the APCD after a 2004 investigation found that the coke calciner and carbon plant were responsible for an estimated 33 tons of excess particulate matter. ConocoPhillips officially shut down its coke calciner in March 2007 and ceased using the baghouse. After the shutdown, the APCD found that doing so had reduced the refinery’s air pollution output by more than 800 percent, from more than 25 tons per year to about 3.2 tons per year, as of 2008.
Before the coke calciner shutdown, ConocoPhillips was dumping roughly 138 tons of nitrogen oxides into the air every year; after the shutdown, it was closer to the 100-ton-per-year threshold, according to the APCD.
As for the men who worked with the coke and swept the ash from the baghouse, many are either retired, fired, or dead. From what a few of those workers told New Times, it doesn’t sound like any new cases will be coming forward, and the people who may have thought about bringing a case have now given up. About 35 years have passed since some of those workers first went into the baghouse in the early ’80s.
“The place has had quite a history of sick people that have gotten sick one way or the other,” said John, who worked alongside Cobb and who also was diagnosed with cancer. “The union sided with the company that, statistic-wise, if you take a group of guys and you somehow broke it down, we were no more a statistically bigger group of people that got sick than the general public. But I kind of don’t agree with that, because it was a small workforce.”
When asked why no one else filed a claim against the company, even though he and others believed their work there might have made them sick, Mark responded: “You pretty much do what you have to do if you want to keep your job. That’s pretty much it.”
As for Carl, who said he was fortunately free of cancer, he spoke about the old baghouse workers like a pack of soldiers, a group of guys who had all shared a common experience and, for better or worse, come out of it. Before hanging up the phone, he rattled off a few names of men who had worked in the baghouse: “We’re kind of the survivors of it right now.”
Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.