Toxic Runoff : Somerville Mayor Tommy Thompson Discusses the Public Health Situation
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.
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.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.