In March, 1994, a convoy of 18-wheeler trucks started making its way from an Exxon treatment plant in Alabama to the tiny town of Grand Bois, Louisiana, 70 miles southwest of New Orleans. The trucks carried oilfield waste that was labeled “non-hazardous,” but when they emptied their loads—less than 100 yards from the closest family in Grand Bois—Exxon’s employees wore hazmat suits, gloves and respirators.
The 301 residents of Grand Bois had no such protection, and no warning of what was about to hit them.
“When the trucks took the curve, the smell just took over the community,” said Clarice M. Friloux, a 32-year-old mother of two. “The kids were getting off the school bus with their shirts over their faces. They stayed sick with diarrhea and dizziness for several days. Our noses were burning. Sore throats. You’d wake up with swollen, puffy eyes.”
The Exxon trucks kept coming to Grand Bois for 10 days—81 trucks altogether, dumping thousands of tons of waste that contained poisonous substances like hydrogen sulfide, benzene, xylene, toluene, lead and arsenic.
The families of Grand Bois had lived in their town for generations. It did not take them long to decide to fight back against Exxon, which they felt had put themselves and their children in danger. They interviewed several lawyers, and eventually decided to hire Gladstone Jones, the founding partner of Jones Swanson.
Carol Browner, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, condemned the oil and gas industry’s ‘sweetheart deal,’ which allowed oil companies to dump poisonous waste near communities.
Mr. Jones was just one year out of law school when he filed a mass joinder suit on behalf of the residents of Grand Bois and against Exxon, one of the richest and most powerful corporations in the world.
The media took an immediate interest in the Grand Bois case. Local TV and news reporters drove out to Grand Bois to do stories about the residents’ fight against Exxon. Eventually, Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes broadcast a story about the Grand Bois case. In the 60 Minutes piece, the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner, condemned the “sweetheart deal” that allowed oil companies to dump poisonous waste near communities all around the country. Meanwhile, then-Governor of Louisiana Mike Foster, citing the Grand Bois case, changed state rules regarding the handling of oilfield waste.
In the end, however, it was up to the courts to decide what would happen to the people of Grand Bois themselves. After a weeks-long trial, Mr. Jones and his clients won their case against Exxon and reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with both Exxon and Campbell Wells, the company that owned the waste facility next to Grand Bois.