Toxic Town: Suffer the Children
"I find myself in a very uncomfortable position," says baby-faced 38-year-old Somerville Independent School District Superintendent Charles Camarillo, clutching his elbows one recent morning while seated at a conference table inside his office.
When the San Antonio native accepted his first-ever job as a district superintendent two years ago, he knew almost nothing about the Somerville wood-treatment plant — only that the acrid smell of creosote sometimes made his eyes water while he was visiting the high-school campus set less than a mile away.
Now environmental tests indicate grossly elevated levels of contamination inside the school buildings, and at least one health expert says students should be evacuated immediately.
"I feel I'm in uncharted waters from what I was trained to do," Camarillo says. "What I don't want to cause is mass hysteria prematurely."
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. University of Houston Cougars Baseball
TicketsTue., May. 10, 6:30pm
TicketsWed., May. 11, 12:00am
U of H Cougars Baseball v Texas A&M Corpus Christi
TicketsWed., May. 11, 5:00pm
Rice Owls Men's Baseball vs. Florida Atlantic University Owls Baseball
TicketsFri., May. 13, 7:00pm
This summer, the rookie superintendent fielded a call from Barbara Lewis, veteran food-service director for the tiny school district — which has a $5.1 million annual operating budget and comprises one elementary, one junior high and one high school with a grand total of 525 students (compared to Houston ISD's $1.5 billion budget and 200,000 students).
Lewis is one of more than 200 Somerville residents suing the railroad-tie plant's owners, alleging that toxic emissions caused her 50-year-old husband John's death in 2002 from colorectal and liver cancer. She also blames the facility for the intense allergies and frequent nosebleeds suffered by her 16-year-old son Colton, who attends Somerville High School.
Lewis asked the superintendent to allow her attorney's environmental scientists into the school buildings to conduct testing. Camarillo had heard rumors that the recent death of a middle-aged school custodian from stomach cancer might have also been linked to the tie plant. He assented without ever consulting an attorney, seeking approval from the seven-member school board or informing parents, students and teachers.
"It was my decision," he says. "I thought it was worth it to find out what was here."
On July 25, Santa Monica, California-based environmental consulting company Soil/Water/Air Protection Enterprise collected dust samples from the attics of five different school buildings — including the areas directly above the elementary school cafeteria and gymnasium. The samples were then sent by Federal Express to a lab in Sacramento and tested for several known cancer-causing chemicals.
In mid-August, Camarillo received the results in the form of a 13-page report filled with inscrutable numbers and charts. On September 4, he asked the spouse of a friend who works as an environmental engineer at Texas A&M University to decipher the information. The contamination levels, he learned, were off the charts.
Levels of benzo(a)pyrene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in coal-tar creosote and linked to various cancers, were as much as 15,000 times higher than protective health levels deemed acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Levels of dioxin, a known carcinogen found in the defoliant Agent Orange and linked to severe birth defects and developmental problems, were as much as 76 times higher.
The lab also tested for arsenic, chromium, hexavalent chromium and copper. "All were significantly high," says Camarillo, who shared the grim results with the school board at its monthly meeting in October.
Two members of the school board are involved in the litigation against the tie plant. Arvis Hutson, a reserve officer for the Somerville Police Department, is a plaintiff in the suit. Robert Urbanosky, a tie plant employee from 1977 to 1995 who is now a Burleson County justice of the peace, provided a sworn statement affirming many of the allegations against the facility — for instance, that treated materials were burned at night to limit complaints from Somerville residents, and that hazardous chemicals from the treatment process were used for dust control. Both Hutson and Urbanosky declined to comment on the contamination found in the schools.
At the October meeting, two-term board member Olen "Pete" Pederson called for independent environmental testing, and warned against the school district being used as a pawn by plaintiff attorneys.
"What do we do?" Pederson asks during an interview at his home in Somerville. "Do we have our maintenance people wearing masks, our teachers walking around wiping common surfaces?"
Pederson generally opposes the lawsuits against the tie plant, and does not believe that any found contamination can be linked conclusively to the facility. He expresses concern about the children, then adds: "You can't overprotect them from everything day in and day out."
After the school board meeting, Camarillo consulted an attorney from Bracewell & Giuliani LLP in Houston. The school district, he learned, cannot be held liable for the contamination. "The only concern is perception at this point," Camarillo says. "I don't ever want the perception that we're hiding." He says he's willing to meet with tie-plant representatives, as well.
Camarillo has already met twice with Houston-based plaintiff attorney Jared Woodfill and nationally known toxicologist James Dahlgren, who believes Somerville's schools should be evacuated and remediated. "Nobody wants contamination in their cafeteria where children eat or their gymnasium where children play," says Paul Rosenfeld, the environmental scientist who conducted the sampling.
Rosenfeld also notes that cancer risk is tripled for children, ages two to 16, exposed to carcinogens, according to a March 2005 EPA report titled "Supplemental Guidance for Assessing Susceptibility from Early-Life Exposure to Carcinogens."
Despite his short tenure as district superintendent, Camarillo is widely praised and respected among Somerville parents. "He'll do what's best for the kids," says Barbara Lewis.
But during his hour-long interview with the Houston Press on October 29, Camarillo repeatedly expressed unease about the situation and how to proceed. "I'm a first-timer here, going, 'Whoa,'" he said.
At that point — more than two months after receiving the data showing astronomical levels of contamination in the schools — Camarillo still had not informed parents, students or teachers about the testing and the results. He said that none had expressed concerns.
Two days after the interview, he posted a short notice addressed "to the Somerville community" on the school district's Web site:
"Some citizens of the community have inquired about health concerns caused by indoor attic dust at our schools. Please know that Somerville ISD is aware of these concerns, and is taking prompt action to address the issue. School officials will be meeting with independent experts from Texas A&M University in the near future to assess the issue, and seek an analysis of dust concentrations and recommendations on remedial action, if any..."
In his interview with the Press, Camarillo said evacuation is a possibility, but he's waiting to find out what happens in the courts.
"I don't want to send out the message that people need to leave yet," he said. "We may get to that point. We may be victims, and that may be established soon enough."
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.