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Toxic: Oil and illness in a Connecticut family’s home

In early August of 2018, Shannon Coolbeth pulled off the highway and into a rest stop, reclined her seat back and took a nap. She had been driving all night to meet her ex-husband in Virginia to pick up her kids. Coolbeth’s ex-husband lived in South Carolina and had visitation with their children for the month of July. As part of their divorce decree, she was obligated to meet him halfway to exchange the kids. 

Coolbeth was wearing a long sundress, and when she woke up and got out of the car, she looked down and noticed she was bleeding severely. She rushed to the bathroom to try to identify the problem and stop the bleeding but began feeling her consciousness slipping away from her. Coolbeth called for an ambulance and was taken to a local hospital. 

After being discharged and taken back up to Connecticut by her family, similar instances of hemorrhaging happened two more times. At first, the doctors thought the source of the issue may just be a benign polyp, but a biopsy and an ultrasound failed to identify the problem. Coolbeth was then scheduled for a dilation and curettage procedure in which the doctors would take a sample of tissues from inside of her uterus. The test results identified something much bleaker.

Coolbeth was diagnosed with a form of uterine cancer very rare in adults called Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma. In June of the previous year, Coolbeth had been diagnosed with Lobular Carcinoma in situ, a breast condition linked to an increased risk of invasive breast cancer. She believes her cancer and breast condition were caused by being exposed to toxic fumes from a large oil spill that seeped from her neighbor’s house, onto her property and into her home.

According to documents obtained by CII, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) failed to properly clean up over 200 gallons of home heating oil that leaked from a resident’s tank and into neighboring land and into streams that flow into Candlewood Lake, the largest lake in the state.

On October 29th, 2015 DEEP received a call from the New Milford Fire Marshal’s office reporting that they had observed oil in an unnamed stream near Club Drive. Prior to DEEP personnel arriving on the scene, the fire department had placed absorbent booms in the affected stream to soak up the oil and tracked the spill to a nearby neighborhood via the storm drains, according to a DEEP emergency incident report.

The source of the oil was narrowed down to a small number of homes on Sherry Lane. Dave Poynton, DEEP’s emergency response coordinator, left business cards at the suspected homes, notifying residents that there had been a leak in the area and to contact DEEP. Shannon Coolbeth found the card and contacted DEEP the same day. She told Poynton that a strong odor of oil had been emanating from her basement for the last few days.

The next day, according to the DEEP report, Poynton met Coolbeth at her home on Sherry Lane. Coolbeth told Poynton that she had noticed an oily sheen in the sump pump in her basement, Poynton noted that he inspected the pump and saw the sheen, as well. Initially DEEP thought her home was the source of the leak because oil was coming into her house through the groundwater and was being expelled through her sump pump.

However, the source of the leak was determined to be Coolbeth’s neighbor, Tom Whitlock. Whitlock called DEEP and informed them that, while changing out his old oil tank, he did lose some oil, though he believed it was just a minor spill. Three days later, however, after measuring how much oil he had left against the amount he last had delivered, Whitlock told DEEP that the spill could have been as much as 200 gallons.

Jeff Chandler of the State of Connecticut Emergency Response Commission (SERC) retained Connecticut Tank Removal (CTR) to remediate the fuel oil in the stream and prevent further migration of the spill. Poynton noted in his report that he informed Whitlock that he would ultimately be held liable for the costs of the clean-up.

While Coolbeth and her kids, Payton and Brett, 15 and 12 years old at the time of the spill, respectively, waited for the remediation to begin, the toxic fumes from the oil seeping into their home were already taking a toll on the health of the family. After CTR initially cleaned the oil out of Coolbeth’s sump pump, the smell of oil had gone away. However, after heavy rains, the oil and the fumes would return. 

By the beginning of December, just a few weeks after the spill, Brett had already seen a doctor three times complaining of a sore throat, headaches and dizziness. Coolbeth had been keeping Poynton updated on the presence of the oil fumes and the health of her son, according to text messages provided by Coolbeth. She told Poynton that the doctor said Brett’s sore throat was likely due to the fumes irritating his throat and that he would keep experiencing symptoms until the issue was resolved.

Poynton assured Coolbeth that the remediation would begin soon. The delay, according to Poynton, was with Whitlock’s homeowner’s insurance taking weeks to render a decision as to whether they would cover the costs of the clean-up. Ultimately, the answer was no and while the state would foot the bill for the remediation in the meantime, Whitlock would be responsible for paying the state back.

Over a month after the spill had been reported, CTR began the remediation process on December 10th. Because of the way the houses are situated next to each other, CTR needed access to Coolbeth’s property so that they could use their heavy machinery to dig up the oil-soaked soil. Coolbeth granted them access.

The remediation team excavated approximately 40 tons of soil from the properties with the goal of curbing any impact or further migration of the oil onto nearby properties or into the stream that flowed into Candlewood Lake. After two days, the remediation work was called off. According to the DEEP report, the excavation of the contaminated soil was limited due to “structural issues”.

However, Coolbeth believes the real issue was how much the clean-up was costing the state. 

“I came home, I think it was the third day, second day, and [Poynton] told me that they were shutting it down, that it was just too much money,” Coolbeth said in an interview. “I got upset with him.”

Coolbeth felt betrayed. She said she trusted Ponyton and DEEP to properly clean up the spill and make her home safe to live in again. According to Coolbeth, DEEP told her they would install a radon system in her basement and put up plastic on the ceiling of her basement, but that was never done.

“When he told me they were shutting it down because there was a cost factor I told them I wanted them off my property. The remediation guys, they come over and they’re like, ‘Listen, if you kick us out, we have to finish with a wheelbarrow and shovel,’ and I said, ‘Fine, finish,’” Coolbeth said. “The guy told me, he said if they were to clean this up right, they’d have to jack up the neighbor’s house and remove all the soil underneath and obviously they didn’t do that.”

The crew finished backfilling the excavated areas, installed three recovery wells on Whitlock’s property and took soil samples to test for oil, according to the DEEP report. The next time DEEP visited the site of the spill was almost a month later on January 8th, 2016. DEEP checked the recovery wells, took a groundwater sample, assessed the stream and, according to the report, found no oil and closed the incident.

Even though DEEP officially labeled the incident as terminated, Coolbeth knew that the remediation was far from complete. Every time it would rain she and her kids could smell the toxic fumes and it would take its toll on them. The family would feel the worst of the effects in the morning, according to Coolbeth, waking up with headaches or feeling dizzy.

She began requesting a copy of DEEP’s report and, when she was initially ignored, began causing enough of a ruckus that DEEP Director Mark DeCaprio reached out personally and made sure she got the report. When Coolbeth finally got the report and read through it, her fears and suspicions were confirmed.

While Poynton had reported that the tests run on the soil samples from the spill site showed that the levels of contamination were “well below” federal and state remediation regulations, the analysis report found that the contamination levels were actually 30 times higher than the state and federal limits. 

The soil sample analysis report also shows that the remediation team backfilled the excavated areas before they knew if the remediation efforts were successful. According to the report, the soil samples were collected on December 11th, the same day the excavation site was backfilled, and weren’t analyzed until 10 days later.

With the spill not properly remediated, oil continued to seep into Coolbeth’s sump pump, exposing the family to toxic fumes. The smell from the fumes was so bad that, even in the dead of winter, Coolbeth couldn’t turn on the heat. 

“I couldn’t use my heat that winter because I have forced hot air and literally the sump pump sits directly next to the furnace,” Coolbeth said. “We have a wood stove, but it was never meant to heat the whole house. [I was] coming home on lunch [breaks] just to stock the wood stove because I don’t want the kids doing it.”

In March, Coolbeth requested a meeting with DEEP leadership and met with then-Director Mark DeCaprio and Supervising Emergency Response Coordinator Matt Williamson. During the meeting, which Coolbeth had permission to record, she expressed her frustration with the way DEEP handled the remediation, allowing it to be delayed for over a month and causing her son to get sick.

Listen To the Audio

Coolbeth told DeCaprio and Williamson that her son’s doctor said he was getting sore throats because of the irritation from the fumes and that it wouldn’t get better until something was done about the oil. DeCaprio responded, “Is it your expectation the state does something about that?”

During the remediation process, CTR installed a carbon filtration system in her sump pump so that the water her pump expelled out into the stream was free of any oil. Coolbeth pointed out that while installing the filter was important to protect the stream and Candlewood Lake, the state did nothing to protect her home from the oil seeping in. The state, Coolbeth said, was essentially using her house as a filtration system for the stream.

DeCaprio responded by saying that Coolbeth had a “legitimate point” and admitted that her sump pump was acting as a “recovery point” but that the alternative would have been to dig a trench between Coolbeth’s house and her neighbor’s house and to have a pump system in it to catch and filter the oil from the groundwater. When Coolbeth said that the alternative would have been better, DeCaprio said that it would have been, but that there was a “cost factor”. 

With no resolution coming out of the meeting, the fumes continued to have adverse health effects on the family. Coolbeth’s daughter, Payton, began experiencing neurological issues. She noticed that if she wasn’t concentrating on holding something, she would drop it. One day, when Coolbeth got home from work, Payton told her she thought she had a brain tumor because she kept dropping things. She stuck her hands out to show that they were shaking uncontrollably.

“I called the pediatrician,” Coolbeth said. “They basically told me, ‘you need to move out of that house. You can’t stay there.’”

A year after the spill, with the conditions of the house a detriment to their health, the family moved in with Coolbeth’s mother, Donna Spongberg, who lived on the opposite end of town. Coolbeth stayed in a finished bedroom in the basement while Payton stayed in a small, doorless computer room that fit a twin-sized bed and not much else. Brett took a spare bedroom upstairs.

Although the living situation was not ideal, being away from oil fumes did seem to improve the health of the family. Almost immediately after moving out of the house, Brett’s sore throat and headaches disappeared and, after about six months, Payton’s tremors resolved, according to Coolbeth.

However, Coolbeth herself was not as fortunate. Upon turning 40 years old, she went in for her first baseline mammogram, while the initial mammogram turned up nothing, a subsequent ultrasound revealed a lump. Less than a year after moving out of the house on Sherry Lane, in June 2017, Coolbeth was diagnosed with a rare condition known as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS).

LCIS is a condition in which abnormal cells develop around the milk glands of the breast. While LCIS is not considered to be breast cancer, the condition is linked to a much higher risk of invasive breast cancer later in life. According to the American Cancer Society, women diagnosed with LCIS are at a seven to 12 times higher risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

Coolbeth was promptly scheduled for surgery to remove the lump and prescribed a hormone treatment to reduce her risk of developing breast cancer. However, while her health issues were resolved, for the time being, the house on Sherry Lane remained a constant source of stress for Coolbeth.

After the oil spill, the well that Coolbeth’s sump pump sat in would fill up with sludge from the oil that came into her basement with the groundwater and clog the pump. Without Coolbeth there to monitor the situation and unclog the pump when need be, the pump clogged and the basement flooded, destroying the water heater and furnace. 

Coolbeth was also still paying the mortgage and knew she and her kids couldn’t stay with her mother forever. So she borrowed money from her mother and took a loan out from a bank in order to replace the water heater and furnace and have the basement encapsulated. The family moved back into the house in June 2018.

After almost two years away, Coolbeth and her kids returned to the house on Sherry Lane with heavy hearts. Although she loved her house, Coolbeth tried everything to avoid having to move back. She even considered renting a house and no longer paying the mortgage and just letting the bank repossess the home.

It wasn’t just the fumes emanating from the basement, that she suspected had caused her breast condition and knew made her kids sick, that had Coolbeth dreading moving back into the house. What also bothered her was having to continue living next to the man she blamed for the spill happening in the first place, her neighbor, Tom Whitlock. 

“For being a single, low-income mom, this is a beautiful house,” Coolbeth said through tears. “My kids had beautiful bedrooms, I worked hard. When I bought this house I only made $15 an hour. So yeah, it was heartbreaking that [Whitlock] took all that away from us”

Accidents happen, but Coolbeth considered the spill to be a product of negligence, not happenstance.

Although it was left out of the DEEP report authored by Poynton, the town Fire Marshall noted in his report that Whitlock was aware his oil tank was leaking seven to 10 days before the spill was reported due to a strong smell of oil in his house. Instead of immediately reporting the spill and addressing his leaky tank, Whitlock attempted to remedy the situation by plugging the hole in his steel tank with a rubber glove and a screw, according to the report. 

Whitlock told the Fire Marshall that his makeshift repair seemed to be working until he noticed the tank continuing to leak a few days later. It was only then that Whitlock pumped all the oil from his old tank and installed a new one.

“It wasn’t an accident,” Coolbeth said in her meeting with DEEP Director Mark DeCaprio. “If he reported it right away, it would have been an accident, but when you take a rubber glove and you stuff it up in there, knowing it’s leaking and try to switch it out over the weekend [it’s not].”

In December of the previous year, while Coolbeth and her kids were living with her mother, Coolbeth filed a lawsuit against the Whitlocks, National General Insurance, CTR, REI Property and Asset Management and several other entities associated with the spill. Coolbeth filed claims of negligence against all parties and sought damages for the physical and emotional trauma sustained to her and her children because of the spill.

While the lawsuit worked its way through the courts, and after almost two years of living out of suitcases, Coolbeth and the kids moved back into the house. When the family had left Sherry Lane, Brett had just turned 13 years old, now that he was on the cusp of turning 15, he had matured and his interests changed. Coolbeth said they basically had to “pack up” his room because he was too old for his stuff by the time they moved back in.

The family was living back on Sherry Lane for just a few months when Coolbeth received news that would precipitate yet another seismic shift in their lives.

After hemorrhaging at the rest stop in Virginia in August, Coolbeth was diagnosed with uterine cancer. After having surgery to remove her uterus in October of 2018, Coolbeth had her first chemotherapy treatment on December 2nd. Over the next seven months, because her cancer was so rare that no hospital in Connecticut was equipped to treat it, Coolbeth would travel to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for her treatments every Friday.

The doctors didn’t mince words with Coolbeth. “You’re going to be very, very sick,” they told her. Knowing that the road ahead was not an easy one and not wanting to rob her son of the childhood he had left by making him watch his mother deteriorate, Coolbeth sent Brett to live with her sister. Her daughter, Payton, was already living away from home as a freshman nursing student at the University of Bridgeport.

Although she trusted Payton, she didn’t want her young daughter driving her into the city out of an abundance of caution. Instead, Coolbeth would take the train to Manhattan, alone, every Friday for her cancer treatment. Every third Friday, however, due to the chemotherapy regimen she was on, Coolbeth would have to stay at the hospital overnight. 

Her cancer, Embryonal Rhabdomyosarcoma, while being exceedingly rare in general with only 500 people being diagnosed each year in the United States, was even rarer in adults. So, not only did she have to travel to Memorial Sloan Kettering for treatments, but she was also treated in the hospital’s pediatrics center.

As it turned out, Coolbeth wasn’t able to get much rest sharing a room with sick children, so after a few overnights at the hospital, decided it wasn’t for her. In lieu of staying overnight, the doctors would hook Coolbeth up to a backpack containing her chemotherapy drugs and a pump and she would travel back home where Payton would deaccess her port-a-cath once the treatment was finished and administer her Neulasta shot.

“It was very difficult,” Coolbeth said. “I don’t even know how I made it to the city and back by myself on the train. Thankfully, I was the last stop so, if I fell asleep, the train is stopping at my stop.”

Predictably, Coolbeth did get very, very sick. Over the course of her treatments, Coolbeth had over 16 blood transfusions, almost died twice, and her doctors had to cut her chemotherapy two treatments short because she was going into liver failure, according to Coolbeth.

However, the cancer affected more than just Coolbeth’s physical health, it also took its toll on her relationship with her children. When she became sick, Payton stepped up and became her mother’s caretaker and advocate, completely changing the typical mother-daughter paradigm.

“I was very dependent on her. I tried not to be, I tried to only ask her for help when she was home on the weekends, but it still took a toll,” Coolbeth said. “The roles changed. She was my advocate and it definitely has put a strain on our relationship, because it’s hard to switch the roles back, especially at her age.”

Coolbeth’s fight with cancer was even harder on Brett. She related her son’s reaction to her cancer diagnosis to the way Brett’s behavior changed when he realized that the Bassett hound he had his whole childhood wouldn’t live forever.

“He got Flash for his second birthday. He loved this dog and as he got older [Brett] kept saying he was going to take the dog to college with him,” Coolbeth said. “As the dog older, and we started to tell him, you know, Flash is getting old, he started distancing himself, and I think that’s kind of what he’s done with me too, he started to put up that barrier and distance himself from me.”

After about seven months of traveling back and forth to Manhattan and enduring treatments that nearly killed her, Coolbeth came out the other side as a cancer survivor. Her port-a-cath was removed in June 2019 and, at this point, she shows no signs of cancer. 

While Coolbeth’s health problems were resolved years ago, her efforts to hold someone responsible for the spill and the incomplete remediation remain ongoing. Whitlock’s homeowner’s insurance, REI and ABC Oil settled out of court for small amounts, but Whitlock himself filed for bankruptcy and avoided any monetary responsibility for the spill, according to Coolbeth.

However, Coolbeth’s complaint against the State seeking damages for the allegedly botched remediation has been pending before the Office of the Claims Commissioner for almost six years.

As CII has previously reported, there remains a backlog of lawsuits that have left people stuck in limbo, waiting for a decision by the Claims Commissioner on whether or not the complaints against the state can proceed. Coolbeth’s lawsuit, which was submitted to the Claims Commissioner in October 2016, is one such complaint.

The lawsuit alleges that the State is ultimately responsible for the aftermath of the spill because, while CTR was contracted to remediate the oil, they were hired by and under the control of the State throughout the process. The harm to Coolbeth and her children was due to the State’s poor remediation, lack of an investigation into just how much oil was lost, the use of Coolbeth’s house as a “recovery point” and filtration system for the stream and Candlewood Lake and the lack of protective systems put in place to protect the family, according to the lawsuit.

“Having to wait almost six years for a response has caused extreme stress, and anxiety and prevented me from being able to sell my house,” Coolbeth said. “Three of the key [DEEP personnel] have retired. I strongly believe that the delay will prevent me from a fair trial if I am granted the right to sue. Nobody should have to wait six years for justice.”

Coolbeth still lives in the home on Sherry Lane. Since having the basement encapsulated, she said she no longer smells fumes from the oil. Coolbeth has made requests to DEEP for some kind of documentation that her home is safe to live in so that she can sell the house, but DEEP responded by saying that the department does not make those types of determinations and is not obligated to do so.

The environmental impact the spill had on Candlewood Lake is another unresolved piece of the story. The DEEP incident report offers no indication that the department studied any potential impact the oil could have had on the wildlife in the area, or that the lake was ever tested for the presence of oil. 

Additionally, while then-DEEP Director Mark DeCaprio said the State couldn’t properly remediate the oil due to the costs associated with the clean-up, the State was eligible for federal funds from the National Response Center (NRC) because Candlewood Lake flows into international waters.

Candlewood Lake flows into Long Island Sound via the Housatonic River and Long Island Sound is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. According to NRC’s website, the State did report the spill to the NRC, but it is unclear if the State received federal funds to aid in the clean-up. 

When reached for comment, DEEP responded, “We are aware of these allegations against the State and other parties. The State has denied them, and we are unable to comment further due to pending litigation.”

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Tom Hopkins

A national, award-winning journalist from Bristol, Tom has a passion for writing. Prior to joining CII, he worked in print, television, and as a freelance journalist. He has taken deep dives into sexual assault allegations by Connecticut professors, uncovered issues at state-run prisons, and covered evictions in the New Britain Herald. He chose to focus on issues based in Connecticut because this is his home, and this is where he wants his work to make the greatest impact.

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