Toxic Town

Sad: Wow, your story ["Toxic Town," by Todd Spivak, December 6] is a real jaw-dropper. I lived in Somerville as a child and moved away after high school. I had no idea any of this was happening and knew some of the people in the photos. Sad story — great coverage.

Kelly Reyes
Abbeville, Mississippi

It's high noon in Somerville: Lines are being drawn and sides are being taken. Our hometown loyalty is being challenged. Ugly personal insults are being spewed. Knees are jerking. The story in the Houston Press is horrifying from either ­perspective:

1. There may be a highly toxic chemical presence in Somerville that is causing people to sicken and die, which has been deliberately (or at least carelessly) perpetrated and criminally covered up, or

2. A tiny town with little or no recourse to defend itself is being unfairly characterized as a toxic place to live on the basis of possibly lawyer-driven, greed-based and certainly incomplete investigations.

We who are from Somerville and may still have family living there, and who love our little hometown, are shocked whichever way this thing slices. But I don't think it's a "For Somerville" or "Against Somerville" issue. Is it "against" Somerville to want the poisons and the cover-up, if they exist, exposed and remediated? Is it "for" Somerville to refuse to accept even the possibility that there may be toxins in the environment, and perhaps continue to have our loved ones exposed to them? (I, for one, refuse to drink that gray water, and have ordered my mother to switch to bottled water immediately.)

The list of "victims" seems to be varied as to complaints, and some seem pretty farfetched. Tilman Hein's death, for instance, wasn't caused by the tie plant (he died of acute necrotizing fasciitis) — but then again, he was very sick all his life, and maybe that was because of the plant. And it doesn't seem likely that chemicals could cause diabetes, or that a pregnant woman could get enough toxins eating vegetables to cause severe birth defects without seriously compromising her own health. On the other hand, exposure to creosote is known to cause skin and scrotum cancer, and high levels of fumes can cause respiratory problems and birth defects in ­animals.

Maybe all these sick folks are just looking for someone to blame for their problems or want to take a ride on the class-action gravy train. But...what if they're right?

We need to reserve judgment — and take precautions — until the results are in. Only a report independent of the attorneys involved in the lawsuits can provide a truly objective analysis of whatever chemicals the tie plant may have discharged over the years, their environmental levels and the relative toxicity still present, if any.

We'll call Erin Brockovich if we need her.

Karen Sager Torres
SHS Class of 1968

Interesting article: However, there's a major problem with your premise.

Some years ago, a town in Canada — Sydney, Nova Scotia — had a similar issue. It seems the cancer rate was going through the roof. All the locals either had cancer, knew someone who had it or were related to someone who had it. They blamed a proximity to an abandoned steel and coke plant, and the remaining waste water pond nearby. This outcry led to investigation and remedial action.

However, every serious, independent study (funded by universities and government) found:

1. The perception of a higher cancer rate was, in fact, perception. There was no great statistical variance of disease occurrence relative to the rest of the province, or country, once age, smoking, etc. was taken into consideration.

2. It was impossible to filter out personal health issues (the population had a high rate of smoking, drinking and obesity) from the environmental ones. In other words, if you or a relative did have cancer, what actually caused it was at best difficult to determine.

3. When the plant closed, the town was left older (with reduced job opportunities, young people left the area) and unemployed. Those facts alone will lead to higher rates of disease, not necessarily proximity to any given pollutant. To the locals, the diseases started to appear after everyone lost their jobs. When everyone was working, death was part of the ebb and flow of life.

4. This may come across as elitist, but a population of people who are undereducated, working at industrial jobs, with a poor diet and high smoking and alcohol consumption rates, will have much higher rates of all diseases. The New York Times reported a study this week that points to shift work (you think?) as having a hugely detrimental effect on your heath — especially after the age of 40. The description of these people at the start of this point does not at all make them lesser people. It is merely a demographic summation of who they are.


The area around Sydney is being cleaned up, at a cost of $400 million. All official documentation refers to it being an environmental disaster. The cleanup is being done to restore the lands to health as best as possible. This is the right thing to do. However, there's no mention of any human health issues, as there were no conclusive findings relative to the polluted lands.

Please note, I would not want to live near, or work at, the plant in question. I do not drive an SUV; I eat organic; etc. I am not tied to the situation in any way. My comments are not an endorsement of any organization being given free rein to spoil the environment for economic gain, or to provide jobs. However, my belief is that in every one of the cases in the article, the aftereffects may have different causes from what appears on the surface. Apocryphal stories from the population affected still do not constitute good science, or the truth. Unless you can fund a double-blind study, with a "control" population of statistically relevant size, over an appropriate time period, I am skeptical of the entire premise that this plant alone is the cause of all the issues in the article.

Name withheld by request

Online readers weigh in:

From Mayor Thompson: I am the Mayor of Somerville. These lawsuits have created many problems for the city. Economic development, which has been in the forefront of our sought-after plan for the future of our city, is not only at a standstill but in regression. Our sales tax has decreased, and our overall vision has been on hold.

I am not an expert on toxins or things of that nature, so my input on this matter has no meaning.

Our entire annual budget could not come close to what's needed to investigate the issues at hand. The city has resolved to go with the reports we receive on a regular basis from the EPA and the TCEQ. Unless otherwise proven, this is all we have.

Is our city contaminated ? The only contamination that I can be certain of is those of the friendships and family relationships that are so important to our community. Some people have put the blame for this turmoil on me 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 situation. This is definitely not the case. It has caused problems in my family and my restaurant. We the City need prayers, understanding and calm until these lawsuits are finally decided by a court of law.

Just for those who want to know: I have never sued anyone and never will.

Comment by Tommy Thompson

Travesty: This article needs national attention. This is a travesty for this town's ­residents.

Comment by Concerned

Catastrophic: I find this article very disturbing, to say the least. I grew up in Somerville, went to school in Somerville and even lived in Somerville for awhile as a young adult. I do feel that the effects of this are catastrophic, and just because you leave this "dying" town doesn't mean you're immune to the poison that has been released into the community on a near-continuous basis for decades.

Comment by Concerned

It's the lawyers: Somerville is my hometown, and while I would naturally be concerned by these allegations, I also realize this is fueled by lawyers. What we need is an independent assessment of the situation instead of alarmist rhetoric. While I feel for these "victims," it will be difficult to directly connect their ailments to the tie plant. Other contributing factors such as smoking and genetics must be taken into account. It's good that the school superintendent is a voice of reason, because it doesn't appear that the city's administration is going to take the lead on dealing with this issue.

Comment by Voice of Reason

Wow: Having grown up in Somerville and lived there most of my adult life, it never occurred to me how much the fumes, chemicals, etc., from the tie plant could be such a threat to the community. My father worked there for years, and I still remember him coming home, smelling the cresol on him and even sneaking snacks from his lunch box and tasting the cresol in the food too. Maybe this will be a wake-up call to some of the people out there. It explains a lot of why so many people have gotten sick in Somerville.

Comment by J. Jimenez

Small-town troubles: Thank you for your work in exposing this situation. It is most troubling. I grew up in a small town. In small towns, companies often get away with actions that put the people of the town at risk. The people need the employment and the prosperity that the company can bring. They keep silent. Those who do ask for respirators or make objections often find themselves out of work.


Comment by William Bell

Let us speak: I am writing you in regards to the information that you printed about Somerville causing illnesses and, in some cases, death. Do me a huge favor and give the rest of us a chance to be interviewed as well.

I am 56 years old, and my dad would have been 83 had he not succumbed to a WWII closed-head injury. When he was a young child, he worked at the "tie plant" for 25 cents a day as a water boy. He never left Somerville except during the war years when he fought for this country and this little town we "hometowners" call home. Those fighting to shut our hometown are move-ins and money-hungry for lack of wanting to work. Do some research about the past of these same people. Do some research before you believe the money diggers. Please.

My brother worked for Santa Fe and BNSF for more than 30 years and is healthy as a horse. He retired this year. So did my older brother, sister-in-law and me. Jack Stamps worked with creosote for all of those years. Go figure. One of the now-deceased former superintendents of the "tie plant" has his widow still alive; there's nothing wrong with her and she's pushing 100! They lived on the tie plant premises until the homes were moved to provide more space. I spent many, many hours at their home playing. My parents were best friends with them. My own mother passed in 2000. At the request of one person we trust, she and I went to her cancer doctor and had all tests run, ruling out any chemical causes. Gee...she was here for how long?

Sir, there are tons of stories out there. You need to find them and give the citizens who care a chance to be heard. In the love of Somerville and the truth...

Comment by Christine Campbell Mc

B.S.: The more I think about this article, the more I feel the need to call bullshit. When you review the cancer cases cited in this article, most are likely age-related or just chance occurrences. The only two that stand out to me are the two cases of bladder cancer, which is a fairly rare cancer and known to be linked with chemical exposure. I think a review of the histories of many of the rest will bring up other mitigating circumstances, i.e., smoking, drinking, drug use, family history, etc.

My dad died of gastric carcinoma, but at age 84. Most of the people who worked their entire lives at the tie plant died of natural causes at ripe old ages.

Comment by SHS Class '68

Chew the tar: I have a comment, because this article is just so stupid. These people are completely nutso! I come from a large family who lived in one of those plant houses, and we were always stomping in those water pits and chewing the tar from the barrels which were kept there on a storage dock, among a lot of other things in those woods around the plant. Our house was at most only 100 feet from the inner workings of the plant. None of us has any symptoms of cancer, nor has any one of us died from cancer. And we all are all up in age.

Comment by SHS Class '59

It Takes a Village, Not a Flower

Robb Walsh's review of El Jardin Mexican Restaurant, "The Times Does Tex-Mex" [November 29], contained an error. Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook imagined taking The New York Times's Joe Drape to Spanish Village, not Spanish Flower.

The Press regrets the error.

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