Toxic Town: Cancer and Birth Defects in Somerville

Dennis Davis thought maybe his family was cursed.

In early 1998, his uncle Don developed an aggressive skin cancer that devoured his face. Several months later, his brother Dale died suddenly at age 46 from stomach cancer. A few weeks after that, his granddaughter Makayla was born with severe birth defects.

Davis started thinking about the other families in his small town that he knew had serious illnesses — the cancers, the brain tumors, the babies born with cleft palates.

He went house-to-house in his neighborhood and was stunned to find that nearly every family he visited was privately dealing with some type of horrendous disease.

"There's a catastrophe in our community," says Davis, who in November 2006 at age 53 was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "God knows what we're contaminated with."

Somerville, Texas, a sleepy, one-­stoplight town 90 miles northwest of Houston, is home to a massive wood-treatment facility, which for more than 100 years churned toxic chemicals into the atmosphere while manufacturing phone poles and bridge supports. Locals call it the "tie plant" since it was once the nation's largest producer of railroad cross-ties.

It was also among the industry's worst polluters, according to several prominent environmental scientists who now say Somerville residents for decades were exposed to wildly elevated levels of arsenic, dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — all known cancer-causing chemicals considered highly toxic even at low doses. (For more detailed information, click here.)

Dust samples taken during the last year from several Somerville homes and school buildings reveal contamination levels higher even than those found 30 years ago in Love Canal, the notorious chemical landfill in Niagara Falls linked to high rates of cancers and birth defects, according to James Dahlgren, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at UCLA School of Medicine who has been retained by plaintiff attorneys in several pending lawsuits against the plant.

"The situation in Somerville is a ­public-health emergency," Dahlgren says. "The government should be called in to investigate."

A Houston Press investigation found as follows:

• Though incidences of stomach cancer across the country have plummeted during the last several decades, now representing just 2 percent of all new cancer cases, Somerville residents are contracting the disease at a rate as much as 40 to 60 times the national average, according to Dahlgren

•Though industry standards have existed for decades regarding ­industrial-waste management, the tie plant as recently as the mid-1990s neglected to install any air-pollution controls on smokestacks, routinely flushed chemical waste into local creeks and improperly used wood-waste boilers as incinerators, causing an incomplete combustion that increased the toxicity of chemicals released into the air

• Though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has never conducted any off-site testing to determine possible contamination levels for Somerville residents, agency spokesman Terry Clawson claims, "We are confident that the bulk of the contamination is on-site and is being remediated."

Davis and more than 200 other Somerville residents have sued current tie plant owner Koppers Inc., a Pittsburgh-based chemical manufacturer, and longtime previous owner Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway (formerly the Chicago-based Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway), alleging the facility's operations have caused an array of serious health ­problems.

In October, Houston law firm Woodfill & Pressler LLP filed a class action complaint against Koppers, demanding the company provide all Somerville residents free medical screenings for early cancer detection. The complaint promises that ongoing studies will show Somerville as having "the largest cancer cluster and other malignant disorders ever seen."

The tie plant continues to use various heavy-duty pesticides and wood preservatives, including coal-tar creosote, a tarry, chemical stew which today is banned in more than two dozen countries and is classified as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

According to Dalhgren, the various carcinogens spewed from the facility created a "synergistic effect," increasing their toxicity. As a result, the cancers reported in Somerville are not just occurring in younger people — they are also hyper-aggressive, killing them quickly.

Residents have long suspected that Somerville has a greater incidence of cancer and other severe illnesses than would be expected for a town with just 1,700 people. In the mid-1970s, the Texas Department of Health Services found that mortality rates from gastrointestinal cancers were twice as high in Burleson County compared to the rest of the state, as documented in a report titled "Creosote Blues" published 27 years ago in The Texas Observer.

"It's just assumed here that cancer is what kills you," says Somerville native Edward "E.W." Schoenberg, a plaintiff in the lawsuits who was diagnosed last year with bladder cancer.

Ronald Supak, a tie plant worker for 28 years whose son was born with a cleft palate, says: "My friends are all dying from cancer; I'm waiting for my turn."

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Todd Spivak