By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
According to workers who attended the meeting, Juba aimed to debunk the lawsuits and media reports by downplaying the risks of working with coal-tar creosote — a wood preservative banned in several countries and classified as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
According to workers, Juba argued to the group that no studies have conclusively linked creosote to cancer in humans. Rather, Juba said, creosote has been shown only to cause cancer in laboratory rats.
After the Press story ran, Koppers hired Pittsburgh-based independent media consultant Matthew Doherty to handle inquiries related to the Somerville facility. Doherty declined interview requests with Juba.
"The meetings with employees...at the Somerville plant were previously scheduled training sessions," according to a statement from Somerville plant manager David Shaw. "The sessions were not a response to litigation or press reports, including the series in the Houston Press."
Coincidentally, also on December 12, the toxicologist Dahlgren abruptly halted a months-long epidemiological study in Somerville after his UCLA graduate students complained that the town had become a hostile work environment.
Dahlgren's students spent much of this past summer going door-to-door throughout the community asking residents to complete health surveys. Dahlgren plans to compare the information to a similarly sized, unexposed control town to determine whether Somerville residents have significantly higher incidences of cancer and other diseases.
Dahlgren is now working to identify an unexposed control town in Mississippi; he plans to send a mailing to every residence in Somerville and set up a 1-800 number for people interested in completing the health surveys.
Jason Klein, who is 25 years old and currently applying to medical schools, traveled to Somerville on four separate occasions this summer, spending a total of 25 days in the town.
Klein says he was initially impressed by the Southern hospitality he received as residents often invited him inside their homes for refreshments. Last week, however, "there was a general consensus among our group that we are not wanted here."
Many people with whom Klein had established good relationships now declined to speak to him. On three separate occasions, any flyers his group posted in town were almost immediately torn down.
"People who were previously very friendly became very unfriendly," Dahlgren says. "They kicked us out of town."
Shirley Lissner has taken a leadership role in rallying Somerville residents against the plaintiffs. Raised in Somerville, the 59-year-old today lives in Spring where she writes a newsletter sent to more than 100 other Somerville High School alumni. Lissner's mother, who has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer, still lives in Somerville.
Lissner frequently contradicts herself about the ongoing issues in her hometown. She insists that the lawsuits filed against the wood-treatment facility are "driven by greed" and people who likely contracted their illnesses due to years of heavy drinking and smoking.
At the same time, she says, the lawsuits "may well have some validity" and admits that "sure, it has crossed my mind" that her mother's and grandmother's cancers were caused by emissions from the plant.
Lissner and others who share her position have an emotional attachment to Somerville.
"I don't care what they find, I'm not going anywhere," says Christine McCorkle, a friend of Lissner's who lives in Somerville and spent eight years as a special-education teacher at Somerville High School.
Lissner believes a governmental agency should investigate any problems, not big-city trial lawyers. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has never conducted any off-site testing. TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson did not reply to several questions submitted in writing by the Press, including whether his agency plans to conduct testing in light of the recent media coverage and alarming environmental studies.
According to Lissner, plaintiffs suing the tie plant are biting the hand that feeds them. She says the town would die without the tie plant.
"What happens if Koppers decides this is bullshit and they close it up?" she asks. "It would be a ghost town, no doubt about it."
Mayor Thompson rejects this widely held belief.
"That is definitely overstating the case," Thompson says. "As far as it being the backbone of Somerville, that's not the case anymore. If anything happened to Koppers, I'm sure that we would go on as a bedroom community."
Thompson says he plans to finish out his term as mayor — which pays a mere $50 per month — but may not seek reelection in 2009. "If somebody had the answers to all this stuff," he says, "I would step down in a heartbeat."
He says he is trying to keep his family together: "I really love my family; I'm hoping that [Faust's] lawsuit doesn't screw up any of the relationships that we have."
Thompson says he took so long to speak out on the public-health issues because he's not a scientist or doctor and figured he had nothing useful to say. He plans to continue to take a narrow view of his responsibilities as mayor.
Standing outside Mama's Kitchen last Sunday afternoon, holding a cup of coffee and a cigarette in the same hand, he sums up his attitude: "Does your toilet flush? Okay, I'm doing my job."