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Toxic Town: Contamination in Somerville Schools

Sixth grader Herbchelle Plumber, who spent a couple days in the Somerville school district's Behavior Management Center, said it smelled so bad she wanted to throw up.
Todd Spivak

At three o'clock last Monday afternoon, Adriel Carter sat in a line of cars outside Somerville Elementary School waiting to pick up her three kids, ages five to ten.

A few weeks earlier, environmental test results had revealed elevated levels of arsenic, dioxin and other known carcinogens in areas throughout the orange-brick, single-story school building that may be linked to toxic emissions from the massive, century-old wood-treatment plant set less than a mile away.

It marked the third time in five months the Somerville schools in East Central Texas had been tested for dangerous toxins. The latest test, authorized by the Somerville Independent School District, showed contamination levels higher even than those at the World Trade Center site.

Carter knew almost nothing about the testing.

She had no clue that during school hours on December 5, 2007, a team of four environmental scientists from Texas A&M University's School of Rural Public Health collected dust samples from eight locations in various school buildings, including the elementary and junior high schools.

Some of the worst contamination was found in the Behavior Management Center, a brightly painted converted house used to isolate students with disciplinary problems. The school district shuttered the building earlier this year, apparently due to environmental-health risks, without informing parents.

Carter and many other parents only learned about the most recent test results by reading about them in the local newspaper. A front-page story appeared in the Burleson County Tribune with the unnerving headline, "SISD attic toxin levels comparable to WTC."

"I don't know what's going on," says Carter, a former Houston resident who has lived in Somerville for 12 years. "Nobody's talking to us. Maybe the schools don't want parents to know."

SISD Superintendent Charles Camarillo authorized the environmental testing in Somerville schools last December. But when the final report was completed this year on February 22, Camarillo refused to release it to the public for two weeks — though it was funded by taxpayer dollars — and forced the media to submit public-information requests to receive copies.

And, now, Camarillo refuses to speak about it at all.

"Through advice from counsel I am not granting anyone any interviews," Camarillo wrote the Houston Press in a March 17 e-mail.

Camarillo, though, has issued a press release on the A&M study, writing that he is "happy that the report showed that our school environment is largely free from dangerous levels of toxins."

And the district Web site now includes a flash bulletin that reads, in its entirety: "Our schools appear to be safe for our staff to work and our students to learn. This is the results [sic] of the independent study."

Camarillo, a 38-year-old San Antonio native now in his third year in his first-ever job as a school-district superintendent, has repeatedly demonstrated a penchant for secrecy.

For instance, when Camarillo first let scientists into the schools to conduct environmental testing last summer, he made the decision without informing parents, students, teachers or even school-board members.

In July 2007, environmental scientists retained by Houston-based law firm Woodfill & Pressler LLP discovered grossly elevated levels of contamination in the attics of several school buildings, characterized the situation as a public-health emergency and recommended the immediate evacuation of the schools ["Suffer the Children" by Todd Spivak, December 6, 2007].

In November 2007, scientists hired by the current and former owners of the wood-treatment facility — Pittsburgh-based Koppers Inc. and Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway — reported that the schools were safe based on samples taken in classrooms and hallways where contamination levels were lowest due to frequent ­cleaning.

In an interview last fall with the Houston Press, Camarillo said he was skeptical about both studies since they were being used in ongoing litigation.

Hundreds of Somerville residents are suing the current and former owners of the wood-treatment facility, alleging that toxic emissions from the plant have caused severe health problems including aggressive cancers and rare birth defects ["Toxic Town" by Todd Spivak, December 6, 2007]. The cancer risk is tripled for children under 16 exposed to such toxins, according to a 2005 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.

School-board members urged Camarillo to call for an "independent study" conducted by scientists at A&M. But even the study's lead investigator, Dr. Kirby Donnelly, head of the university's Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, admits it did not resolve the question of whether the school buildings are safe.

According to Donnelly, the study was "very limited in scope" due to financial constraints. The A&M study was funded by a research grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The school district paid for the laboratory analysis, estimated to cost about $5,000.

To cut costs, Donnelly took swipe samples — a low-tech method in which a cloth is soaked with isopropyl alcohol and wiped on the floor — then compared the data with apartment buildings in New York City near the World Trade Center site.

 

The EPA offers no guidelines for measuring toxic chemicals taken from swipe samples, Donnelly says.

The A&M scientists collected dust samples from the hallways in the junior high school and the Behavior Management Center, though most were taken in the elementary school. No testing was performed in the high school since the floors had been recently waxed, Donnelly says.

The results were as follows:

• A floor wipe from the elementary school gymnasium revealed arsenic at levels higher than World Trade Center concentrations. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen linked to birth defects and various cancers, according to the EPA.

• A sample from the attic above the elementary school cafeteria, near an air duct that leads to a food storage area, showed arsenic and other dangerous metals at levels higher than World Trade Center ­concentrations.

• A sample from the attic above the elementary school gymnasium contained the highest concentration of dioxin, exceeding levels at the World Trade Center site. Dioxin is a known human carcinogen used in the 1960s and 1970s in the defoliant Agent Orange and is linked to various developmental problems, according to the EPA.

• All samples contained polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, which is found in heavy-duty pesticides used to preserve wood and classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen linked to various cancers.

Though it is not included in the report, Donnelly has advised Camarillo to remediate the attics in all the school buildings this summer, then conduct more testing. He recommends "a detailed analysis and qualitative assessment of the health threat."

But it remains unknown whether Camarillo will follow Donnelly's advice.

Not surprisingly, both sides in the pending litigation have worked to spin the A&M results in ways that bolster their cases.

Jared Woodfill, the plaintiff attorney, says the A&M report confirms his own findings, which showed levels of several known carcinogens thousands of times higher than concentrations deemed acceptable by the EPA. He warns that the combination of chemicals found inside the schools increases their toxicity.

Koppers Inc., meanwhile, has waged an aggressive public-relations campaign to portray the A&M report in a positive light. And Camarillo has proven very willing to work with Koppers in this effort.

On February 26, four days after the report was finalized, Camarillo held a press conference inside his offices. A couple dozen people attended, including local news media and several Somerville residents.

The Houston Press was not invited despite repeated requests to receive any and all information regarding the A&M study as soon as it was released.

More surprisingly, Donnelly and his colleagues at A&M also were not invited.

"We did not attend the press conference," Donnelly wrote the Houston Press in a recent e-mail. "Although we would have been happy to participate, we were not invited & did not even know about it!"

Camarillo did, however, invite Philip Goad, a toxicologist hired by Koppers as an expert witness in the litigation.

According to attendees, at the press conference Goad did answer questions from reporters, offering his own belief that the schools required no remediation.

Woodfill suspects that Camarillo provided Koppers the A&M report before releasing copies to the public. Matthew Doherty, a media consultant hired by Koppers specifically to handle inquiries related to the Somerville facility, denies this.

It took a public information request filed by a local TV reporter from KBTX in Bryan to pry the report away from the school district.

Camarillo finally released it to the public on March 7. That same day, Koppers launched an elaborate Web site, www.somervillefacts.com.

Koppers also bought a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper timed to run the same day as the story on the A&M report. The ad read: "...All of Texas A&M's dust samples, even the samples from the attics, are below health-based guidelines established for indoor living space. These guidelines were developed by the World Trade Center Chemicals of Potential Concern Committee...These are all positive developments for the people of ­Somerville."

Donnelly says he was confused by Camarillo's actions.

"Why he didn't release it, I don't know," Donnelly says. "I felt like it was important to the parents and everyone interested that the information get to the public. I wish that he had released it more quickly. I don't understand why he didn't."

James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist and professor at UCLA School of Medicine hired by the plaintiff attorneys, calls the A&M report inadequate but adds that its results are anything but ­reassuring.

"They found elevated levels of arsenic, dioxin and PAHs in a school," says Dahlgren. "Tell me you wouldn't be freaked out by that finding alone."

Dahlgren opines that the superintendent is acting like someone who is concerned more about his own career than the safety of students and employees.

 

"The poor superintendent of schools is in a real box and he can't be objective," Dahlgren says. "I certainly wouldn't want to put my life in his hands at this point, because he loses his job if he recommends that the schools be closed."

During his interview last fall with the Houston Press, Camarillo said he didn't know if the lawsuits against the owners of the wood-treatment plant were legitimate. Last Monday, while driving his pickup truck outside the elementary school, he told a Houston Press reporter he now believes the studies showing contamination in the schools were "plaintiff-driven."

Camarillo declined to answer any other questions. He also did not respond to a list of questions submitted in a March 19 e-mail by the Houston Press, including whether the district plans any remediation or additional testing in the schools.

Camarillo instructed the Houston Press to contact his Houston-based attorney, Jeffrey Horner, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani LLP, to answer these and other questions. But Horner's assistant said Camarillo did not authorize Horner to speak.

The Houston Press asked Camarillo in an e-mail to give Horner permission to speak, but Camarillo did not respond.

Stooped beneath the weight of a heavy backpack, Herbchelle Plumber last Monday was walking in the street in front of the Behavior Management Center on her way to class. The 11-year-old sixth grader at Somerville Junior High remembers having to spend a couple days in the little building "as punishment for acting up."

Plumber never wanted to go back. And it wasn't just because she didn't like the sting of being isolated from her ­classmates.

"The ceiling is all molded," she says. "It stinks so bad it makes you want to throw up."

Plumber's family is among the plaintiffs in the lawsuits against the current and former owners of the wood-treatment facility. Her great-grandfather worked at the plant for three decades. Many of her seven siblings suffer from learning disabilities and neurological disorders.

"Teachers say it's all a fib," she says. "They say people are just trying to get money out of the school."

But Plumber isn't so sure.

"The kids are scared," she says. "I am so scared. I mean, if [contamination levels are] higher than the World Trade Center, I mean, God."

Barbara Nichols, the music teacher at Somerville Elementary who has worked in the school district for five years, says she isn't at all concerned.

"If it was a major problem, somebody would tell us," says Nichols, standing next to her car in the school parking lot during a cigarette break. "We have no problem in this school unless we go crawling around in the attics."

Another teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, saying she feared retribution from the school district, says she is "very worried" about her health and "can't understand" why her colleagues aren't.

"Nobody cares," says the teacher, who plans to leave the district or retire. "Other teachers aren't even bothered, like it's nothing, like it's a joke."

Justin Faust, a 15-year-old freshman at Somerville High, says his teachers don't talk about it: "But most of us students believe that there's poison in the schools."

Still, the school-band member says he is conflicted about transferring.

"I have a lot of friends here," he says. "I kind of want to go to a different school, but I kind of want to go here where I know everybody."

Justin Faust's grandmother, Linda Faust, sued Koppers and BNSF, alleging that emissions from the plant caused her stomach cancer at age 40 in 1998. A Fort Worth jury ruled against her in February; she plans to appeal.

Other trials are slated to begin this summer.

In the meantime, parents such as Carolyn Johnson, whose grandson attends third grade at Somerville Elementary, complain that they haven't heard anything from the school district.

Another grandparent with a child in the elementary school, who asked not to be named because he doesn't want his local business affected, said more needs to be done.

"The school district has been dragging its feet," he says. "They ought to clean this mess up. If not, let's get these kids out of here."

todd.spivak@houstonpress.com


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