Special Report: Toxic Town

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Raised less than two miles from the Houston Ship Channel, 49-year-old cancer specialist Dr. Peggy Connor for years had fantasized about chucking city life, and the industrial pollution that goes with it.

“I wanted to move to a clean, safe place,” she says.

In September 2006, Connor selected Burleson County, set some 90 miles northwest of Houston, as the place to realize her dream of starting a hormone-free, grass-fed cattle farm. She bought 18 undeveloped acres set within a 30-minute drive of Texas A& M University, her alma mater.

Three months later, she discovered that her bucolic property sat just 12 miles away from a massive wood-treatment facility in Somerville, which for more than 100 years spewed toxic emissions into the atmosphere and contaminated the small town. Recent environmental tests show grossly elevated levels of arsenic, dioxins and other known carcinogens in several Somerville homes and school buildings.

Today more than 200 residents are suing the facility’s current and former owners, alleging its operations have caused an array of cancers and birth defects.

“The situation in Somerville is a public-health emergency,” says Dr. James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist who recommends shutting down Somerville’s schools immediately and evacuating the entire town.

A Houston Press investigation found that the plant for decades flaunted industry standards regarding industrial-waste management and failed to provide employees with proper safety equipment when handling hazardous materials, among many other abuses. Dahlgren says stomach cancer rates in Somerville are as much as 60 times the national average for a town its size.

But don’t expect the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to do anything about it. TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson says there’s no need to test the community since his agency believes most of the contamination is at the plant site itself, where remediation has been ongoing for 20 years.

Today Connor has been coaxed from retirement and is helping to conduct an epidemiological study of Somerville. She has collected 600 health questionnaires from residents – more than one-third of the town’s entire population.

“It seems almost every kid has asthma in this town,” Connor says. “I lived and worked on the Houston Ship Channel my whole life. I know pollution, and I am appalled.” – Todd Spivak

Web extras:

Narrative slideshow: Cancer and Birth Defects in Somerville

Charts: Toxic Chemicals Released from and Used at the Somerville Tie Plant

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