By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The mood in Somerville has taken a distinct turn since the Houston Press published its special report "Toxic Town" (December 6, 2007), and attorneys get ready to try their first case.
Hundreds of Somerville residents are suing the current and former owners of a century-old wood-treatment plant set along the town's northern edge, alleging that toxic emissions spewed from the facility for decades had poisoned the community and caused a massive cluster of deadly cancers and debilitating birth defects.
Dr. James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist and professor at UCLA School of Medicine hired by the plaintiff attorneys, has called the situation in Somerville a public-health emergency. Based on grossly elevated levels of carcinogens found within the last year in several area homes and school buildings, Dahlgren has advised immediately shutting down the schools and evacuating all 1,700 residents in the small town located 90 miles northwest of Houston.
In the last three weeks since our story ran, the following has occurred:
• Koppers Inc., the current owner of the railroad-tie plant, sent a corporate representative to Somerville to dismiss the allegations made in lawsuits and media reports during a companywide meeting. The publicly traded, Pittsburgh-based corporation also hired a media consultant specifically to handle inquiries related to the Somerville facility.
• Dahlgren abruptly halted his months-long epidemiological study in Somerville due to complaints that residents and business owners in the town had become increasingly hostile to students going door-to-door with health surveys.
• Somerville's mayor ended his years-long silence about the plant and its emissions by granting the Press his first-ever on-the-record interview on the public-health issues facing his community.
• The Somerville Independent School District authorized "independent" testing in several school buildings where astronomical levels of contamination had been found, but even the environmental scientist from Texas A&M University who took the new samples admits they won't settle anything.
Somerville Mayor Tommy Thompson is a bowling ball of a guy: bald and barrel-chested. Covered in faded tattoos, the knuckles on his left hand spell out the word 'L-O-V-E.' He rides a custom-built motorcycle and co-owns an entertainment company that hosts a popular motorcycle rally held annually in rural Burleson County.
"I've been a biker all my life," says Thompson, a 57-year-old Arkansas native who followed the oil boom to Corpus Christi then to Somerville 18 years ago.
On many afternoons, Thompson can be found dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, slurping coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes with friends in Mama's Kitchen, a no-nonsense, home-style restaurant he owns with his wife.
Though Thompson ran unopposed in last year's election, his support appears to be slipping.
For years, Thompson avoided any discussion about the environmental and public-health issues in Somerville. His first public comment appeared in a December 12 post on the Houston Press Web site in response to our story.
"Is our City contaminated?" he asked. "The only contamination that I can be certain of are those of the friendships and family relationships that are so important to our community."
He continued: "Some people have put the blame of this turmoil on myself and the City administration. They have also slandered my personal business saying that it was a den of people who enhance and contribute to the uneasiness of this ongoing situation. This is definitely not the case. It has caused problems in my family and my restaurant."
The next morning, an anonymous writer replied: "Is the mayor concerned about the town or his restaurant? It's hard to tell."
An hour later, another respondent chimed in: "...Addressing the town's issues and your family issues in the same message was inappropriate."
This prompted Thompson to write another post: "...I am guilty of Loving this community and only want the best for all who live here. This will be my last comment; no matter what I say or do, I see that I will never be enough to fulfill everybody's opinion."
A couple days later, the two-term mayor agreed to his first on-the-record interview.
Thompson says the quaint, friendly town he fell in love with years ago has become sharply divided. Loyalty to the wood-treatment facility, which helped create Somerville and for many years was its largest employer, has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
Thompson, who has no background in science or even a college degree, says he isn't qualified to say whether the elevated levels of arsenic, dioxin and other known cancer-causing chemicals found throughout the community can be linked to the plant.
He believes that many of the illnesses contracted by residents were caused by genetics or other factors. But his position is complicated by the fact that his sister-in-law Linda Faust is one of the plaintiffs. Faust, a longtime Somerville resident, was diagnosed with an aggressive stomach cancer at age 40; her trial date is set for early next month.
Thompson blames the lawsuits against the wood-treatment facility for the town's current recession. "Building permits have dropped to almost nothing," he says. "Everybody's life seems to be on hold right now."
His advice to frustrated business owners: "Hold steady and straddle the fence until we find out something more concrete."
Thompson estimates that sales taxes in the town have declined by more than 12 percent in the last year largely due to a drop in tourists to Lake Somerville, a reservoir built in the mid-1960s by the United States Army Corps of Engineers that attracts as many as 1.4 million visitors a year.