SALLISAW, OK – – Margie Woodrum needs a cane to find the home where she raised her children. Her eyesight is now failing.
“Twenty five years I lived here, and everything was beautiful,” she says as she slowly approaches her former home.
“Flowers. We growed all our food.”
But even when she finds the front door, she knows she can never go inside again.
“Because the poison,” she says. “The doctor ordered me out of here, and not to take nothing, and never go back in that house.”
A few miles away in Sallisaw, Linda Maxwell and Bob Eskew can only sit on the front porch of their farm home.
They had to buy a trailer to live in because their house is being completely gutted.
They believe something in the air was making Bob sick.
“He’d say ‘I feel so bad’,” Linda recalls.
“He said ‘Linda, I feel like I’m dying’.”
All three say their lives were turned upside down because they bought propane.
“The last five years, I’ve done nothing but go to doctors and hospitals,” Bob says, “and eat pills.”
In late 2005, Linda, Bob and Margie say they bought propane to operate their heaters and stoves from Steveson’s LP Gas Company, in Sallisaw.
Soon after, they started noticing problems.
“We had the runny eyes,” Linda says. “We had the burning nose, the burning eyes. We had blisters.
Bob had blisters in his mouth and I had sores in my mouth.” Bob thought he had the flu. He was wrong.
“I just woke up one morning and couldn’t see.”
He says doctors would eventually tell him he had lost most of his vision and 40% of his lung capacity.
“Now, like I say, I’m lucky to get up and walk to the car to go somewhere now,” Bob says with frustration.
Margie is now living in an apartment, using a magnifying lamp to read and taking breathing treatments four times a day.
She says the propane she bought also caused vision loss and lung problems.
“It started to be where I couldn’t breathe,” Margie says. “Just couldn’t get no air, no matter what you did.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually investigated after several customers complained of similar problems.
Their report says nearly 10,000 gallons of “contaminated propane” was delivered to Steveson’s LP Gas in 2005, which came from Coffeyville Resources Refinery in Coffeyville, Kansas.
The EPA report says “when the propane was combusted, an unknown amount of residual fluorine gas was released into the air.”
Stephen Prilliman, an Assistant Professor of chemistry at Oklahoma City University, says fluorine is “something that you would want to avoid at all costs.”
He says fluorine is part of the chemical Hydrogen Fluoride, or HF, which is used by refineries to make propane.
How dangerous is it? Stephen says when dissolved with water, it can cause serious damage to a person’s central nervous system.
“I would assume that when you breathe it in, that it would mix with the water in your lungs and could probably do the same sort of thing in a high enough concentration.”
Margie’s lawsuit against Steveson’s LP Gas and Coffeyville Resources Refinery says there were “manufacturing irregularities” that occurred at Coffeyville’s refinery.
The attorneys for Margie, Linda and Bob would not speak on camera, but one attorney told NewsChannel 4 that HF gas should have been removed from the propane before leaving the refinery, but was not.
Coffeyville’s parent company, CVR Energy, declined to comment.
“All we ask was for them to come and fix the house,” Linda says while crying.
“So yeah it’s frustrating. I cry, and I still do, because it’s sad.”
So who makes sure propane sold in Oklahoma is safe? The Oklahoma Corporation Commission inspects gasoline, but does not have the authority to inspect propane.
The Department of Environmental Quality, EPA, Oklahoma LP Gas Administration and the Oklahoma LP Gas Research, Marketing and Safety Commission all say they don’t regulate propane.
They all declined an interview for our story.
However, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tells us they enforce propane “industry standards” and will look into the allegations.
Steveson’s LP Gas says they’re a victim too.
Their attorney tells us he’s filed a lawsuit against Coffeyville’s refinery for loss of income and damage to their reputation.
More than five years later, the lawsuits for Linda, Bob and Margie are still pending.
Church friends are now restoring Bob and Linda’s home.
Nurses are now helping Margie get around.
They all say they’re in declining health and never thought that tank in the yard would be to blame.
“You’re just living on a day to day basis, is all you’re living on,” Margie says.
When asked how she deals with that emotionally, she replied “Pray. I pray.”
The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a hotline, 800- 638-2772, and a website for reporting an unsafe product.