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Thousands, Maybe 1.7 billion, Observe Hess Asbestos Suit Deadline

Potentially 1.7 billion people were asked in commercials and press releases to consider if they’d been exposed to asbestos at the St. Croix oil refinery. (Screenshot of court document)

Hundreds of thousands of people — and potentially many, many more — observed the March 17 deadline for suits against Hess and its subsidiaries for asbestos exposure at the St. Croix oil refinery, court records show.

Honx, the Hess subsidiary seeking bankruptcy protection, hired an advertising firm to spread word about the deadline as ordered by a Texas bankruptcy court.

Washington, D.C.-based The Messina Group launched a media blitz about the deadline in January — spreading word to potential claimants in press releases and advertising online, on television and radio. The message could have reached 1.7 billion in 169 countries, the firm said in court records filed Friday.

The press release, sent out globally through PR Newswire in 19 languages, contained a link to a webpage described as helping would-be claimants file a complaint. That link, however, contained a typo that did not direct to a working website. Court documents show the broken link — st.croixclaims.com — was clicked at least five times, likely by people seeking the working link, www.stcroixclaims.com, which was listed in the other advertising.

The court filings published last week did not address the broken link nor issues around the purported toll-free numbers set up. Two telephone numbers set up to field potential claims were promoted — a 1-855 number billed as “toll-free” and a 1-949 number for international callers. This caused consternation amongst some Virgin Islanders as the 1-855 number did not work in the U.S. territory, which is not usually considered “international” in relation to the mainland United States.

But some potential claimants did get through. According to the court filing, 303 calls had been received by March 31.

More than 950 English and Spanish 30-second television ads ran between Jan. 30 and Feb. 26 in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as more than 1,100 30-second radio spots alerting people injured by asbestos at the refinery of the suit deadline.

The firm ran advertisements in the trade publication Oil & Gas Journal, as well as newspapers on St. Croix, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and six other Caribbean territories. The ads also ran on the mainland in New York’s Caribbean Life newspaper, Miami’s Caribbean National Weekly, and the Houston Chronicle. Online publications, including The Source, also carried the ads. The internet advertising drove 280,539 clicks to the Honx bankruptcy website, according to court records. Advertisements with online newspapers like this one and social media were seen 46,071,540 times between Jan. 30 and March 3, the records show.

The dangers of asbestos — a fibrous, fire-resistant material that can lead to specific lung cancers — had been known since the 1930s and federally recognized as hazardous since the 1950s. The refinery on St. Croix, built in the early 1960s and opened in 1965, is thought to have contained millions of pounds of asbestos. Court filings allege workers were routinely exposed, especially while cleaning up storm damage at the plant. They also may have unknowingly brought the toxic fibers home to their families as it clung to their clothing.

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