The Toxic Tort Case

It began in the Panhandle with the promise of great riches, only to crash and burn in a Houston courtroom. The wreckage is still smoldering, and the truth is nowhere to be found.

And win or lose, perhaps they all had a right to expect more.
"I trusted them," says one former client. "I thought they were the greatest. They were my heroes."

DROPCAP:By February 1989, shortly after amending the negligence suit in Harris County, the three lawyers had more than 200 clients who thought they had been exposed to toxins from Celanese. On a cold Panhandle morning, Upchurch made a thinly veiled appeal for more in a 30-second interview on Amarillo's Action News 4.

"I think we will prove ... that a number of leukemia cancers are really the result of the fallout and the emissions of all these years from the Celanese plant," Upchurch declared. "It's in your water supply up here. So, as a class of people, we believe anyone exposed to this, by the suit we have filed, is potentially at risk."

No one had ever tried to link health problems to Celanese before, though the plant certainly had given people cause for concern. Even before the explosion, the Environmental Protection Agency cited Celanese for violating air pollution laws. That came on the heels of a report by the Texas Department of Health and the Federal Centers for Disease Control that said the number of children with Down syndrome born in the area was "significantly more than expected." Neither agency could identify a cause.

The explosion opened the door for other state and federal investigations of the plant, and some of the findings raised more questions. The federal Office of Safety and Health Administration determined one cause of the explosion was "willful violation" of established safety procedures.

One Pampa resident who saw Upchurch's brief television appearance was Karen Sue Son, a 38-year-old mother of two girls, aged 13 and seven. Son, who grew up in Borger, 25 miles west of Pampa, was diagnosed with lupus in 1985. While she won't say that she believes toxic emissions brought on the disease, which causes heart and kidney problems, she clearly considers it a possibility.

Son is unequivocal, however, in her belief that the Celanese plant can make people frightfully ill.

"I remember being three and four years old and being with my grandparents and driving in front of this plant and breathing and coughing all this stuff and then vomiting," says Son, who moved to Pampa in 1980.

After seeing Upchurch on the news, Son wrote to the attorney, thanking him for standing up to Celanese. A few days later she was visited by an investigator working for Upchurch, who had her fill out some medical history forms. She also signed an agreement making her a client of Upchurch, Barfield and Haden.

But the bulk of clients who signed up with the three attorneys did so through a group called Advocates for Acid Rain. Ostensibly, the group -- which despite the name was against acid rain -- was formed in early 1989 by community activists to provide information on possible health dangers associated with Celanese.

On paper, the leader of Advocates for Acid Rain was Carolyn Hood, a resident of Kingsmill Camp, a collection of trailers and small houses separated from the Celanese property on the south by a chainlink fence and U.S. Highway 60. However, recordings made by Hood and others show that the Advocates for Acid Rain was in fact the brainchild of Tom Upchurch, who wasn't getting the response he wanted on his own. (For some reason Upchurch originally had wanted to name the group the "Circle of the Reindeer," a name, he later joked, that was "too cute" and might have landed him in jail.)

"I'm surprised more from Pampa are not involved," Upchurch told Hood during a March 1989 phone conversation. "Why we haven't been able to do that, I have no idea ... There are more people dead and dying from up here." Upchurch instructed Hood to "get with your other biddies ... [to] set up any kind of organizing committee that will call and stress on people to come."

Later that month, Upchurch outlined to Hood how the meetings would work. "We are getting some paper made up and we're going to print off of our computer ... It's going to be called the Acid Rain Advocates Group ... and you're executive assistant. We're going to print your name on it and bring this stuff up. Then we'll bring our contract forms up."

He promised "a very interesting evening."
But Upchurch seemed concerned that people might get the wrong idea. He told Hood that the meeting was not to start until he got there because "I'm the only one that knows what this is about."

"I won't say anything until we get there and I'll get permission from the people," he said. "So that no one can say that we're trying to mislead or frighten or do anything. It will be very carefully done."

The avowed purpose of the meetings was to make people understand how deadly it was to work at and live near the Celanese plant. Karen Sue Son says she remembers a meeting at which Haden spoke of "a bloody door" that the chemical company didn't want opened. Behind it, he said, were the secrets of how Celanese was "killing people."

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