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By Sean Pendergast
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The City of Brenham, located 15 miles away, for decades has pumped its drinking water from Lake Somerville. Terry Roberts, city manager of Brenham, says he is aware that the wood-treatment facility in Somerville contaminated the area's groundwater; the land beneath the facility has been listed as a federal hazardous waste since the mid-1980s.
But Lake Somerville is not contaminated, Roberts says, adding that no one in Brenham has expressed concerns about the safety of his town's drinking water.
The city of Somerville, meanwhile, gets its drinking water from 2,800-foot-deep wells located four miles north in Lyons, a tiny community with fewer than 400 residents. Thompson says it is cheaper to pump in the well water than to treat the lake water.
Thompson says Somerville's drinking water is safe. But Dahlgren, the toxicologist, says hazardous emissions from the wood-treatment facility may have extended as far as five miles, contaminating the water supply. "They probably are at risk," Dahlgren says.
No environmental studies have been conducted in Lyons or other communities surrounding Somerville.
Dahlgren also says he suspects that high levels of contamination may exist in the Yegua and Tommelson creeks, which empty into the Brazos River. Many Somerville residents recall seeing two-headed lizards and large catfish floating dead in the local creeks back in the 1970s and 1980s when some of the worst pollution was occurring.
Thompson says the future of Somerville depends on the outcome of the trials, figuring a verdict against the plaintiffs will resolve the issues and a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs will prompt governmental action. He says there is no money in the city budget to conduct environmental testing.
"Everybody is assaulting me," Thompson says. But, when pressed, he admits that no one has ever raised any of the issues at a city council meeting or even criticized him directly.
So how does he know his constituents are upset?
"Gossip runs rampant."
Indeed, gossip is running rampant in Somerville these days.
There's the rumor that managers at the wood-treatment facility have threatened to shut down the plant, laying off scores of employees. There are rumors that business owners have banded together to sue plaintiffs for defaming the city, and that local police angrily confronted UCLA graduate students for conducting health surveys in the town.
All are hearsay and half-truths, keeping a lot of people busy.
On December 5, Somerville ISD superintendent Charles Camarillo asked four environmental scientists from Texas A&M University to take dust samples in several school buildings.
This past summer, environmental testing performed inside the school attics by a California-based consulting company hired by Houston-based law firm Woodfill & Pressler LLP revealed levels of several known carcinogens thousands of times higher than levels deemed acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Somerville ISD school board members advised Camarillo to independently assess whether the schools are safe. The school district plans to spend at least $5,000 on the study; results will be available in January.
But the new testing won't settle anything, according to Kirby Donnelly, head of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Texas A&M's School of Rural Public Health.
"It's more numbers to debate," he says.
Donnelly used a different methodology than the experts hired by the plaintiff attorneys. Rather than collect the dust with a high-powered vacuum, he took swipe samples — a low-tech method in which a sterilized, oven-treated fiber cloth is saturated with isopropyl alcohol and wiped on the floor, then returned to a Ziploc bag and sent off to a laboratory for analysis.
Donnelly further cut costs by opting to analyze the dust samples only for arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The previous study found elevated levels of dioxins, chromium and several other known carcinogens. "I may have been wrong on this," he says.
Donnelly's testing, paid for by a research grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, marks the third time in five months that testing was performed in the local schools. He plans to compare his data to contamination levels found in other places, including the World Trade Center site post-9/11.
According to Donnelly, the plaintiff attorneys' tests on July 25 were biased since they occurred only in attics where contamination levels would be highest. Meanwhile, he says, the defense attorneys' tests on November 28 were biased since they occurred only in classrooms and hallways where contamination levels would be lowest.
"Ours will fall somewhere in the middle," says Donnelly, adding that he will consider the situation urgent only if elevated levels of contamination are found in classrooms and other places "where kids breathe." If the contamination is confined to the attics, he says, he may recommend duct cleaning and other low-cost solutions.
"It's a bunch of baloney; it's all fictitious."
That's the gist of an hour-long presentation made on December 12 by a Koppers corporate representative to all 90 employees at the Somerville wood-treatment facility, according to a veteran employee who attended the meeting but asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution.
Every week, workers at the Somerville facility must attend a safety meeting that is usually led by the plant manager. The December 12 meeting was unique since it was led for perhaps the first time by Michael Juba, director for global products safety and health at Koppers' headquarters in Pittsburgh.