American Toxic

The railroad tie plant that gave birth to tiny Somerville may now be killing the town, residents claim

In sworn testimony, more than a half-dozen veteran tie plant employees made a laundry list of allegations against the facility, including:

• Failing to provide employees with proper safety equipment when handling hazardous materials

• Spraying toxic pesticides such as creosote and pentachlorophenol throughout the facility to kill weeds and control dust

The massive wood-treatment facility, once the nation's largest, sprawls alongside Somerville's main commercial artery.
Courtesy of Jared Woodfill
The massive wood-treatment facility, once the nation's largest, sprawls alongside Somerville's main commercial artery.
Dr. James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist, recommends shutting down Somerville's schools immediately and evacuating the entire town.
Daniel Kramer
Dr. James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist, recommends shutting down Somerville's schools immediately and evacuating the entire town.

• Burning creosote-treated wood in boiler stacks at night to limit complaints from townspeople regarding the intense odor and black smoke it produced

• Destroying several truckloads of key company documents in an attempt to cover up environmental abuses.

Koppers and BNSF have denied all allegations; spokesmen for both companies declined interview requests for this story, citing the pending litigation. "...It is our position that there is no reliable scientific evidence to support their claims," BNSF spokesman Joseph Faust wrote in an e-mail. "BNSF does not believe the plant is responsible for harming anyone..."

Dahlgren says there is no doubt that toxic emissions from the tie plant have directly caused numerous health problems in Somerville residents. (To view a PDF showing a cross-section of victims in the community, click here.)

His recommendation: shut down the schools immediately and evacuate the entire town.

Dennis Davis worked at the Somerville tie plant for 24 years, starting in 1971 as a junior in high school. Hired on as a roustabout, he drained ditches, cleaned industrial spills and stacked 150-pound railroad ties. The work was hard, but the money was good.

It was something of a family tradition. His grandfather, father, uncle and older brother all had worked there. "During the Great Depression," he says, "my grandfather used to sit under a tree outside the tie plant with a horse and mule every day just waiting for someone to get hurt so he could take his place."

Many current Somerville residents can trace their family histories back several generations to the small town and its one-time largest employer—the two are inextricably linked.

The area known today as Somerville began as a railroad boom town. It's named for Albert Somerville, a two-term Galveston mayor and first president of the Chicago-based Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway Co.

In the late 1880s, the GCSF extended its tracks north from Brenham, building a railroad yard, train depot and roundhouse repair shop. Somerville became a busy stop on the main line linking Chicago to Galveston and a rail spur extending through East Texas to Beaumont. The area's population grew from fewer than 100 in 1880 to more than 2,000 by 1930.

According to local lore, the railway company initially sought to base a wood-treatment plant in nearby towns such as Brenham, Lyons and Caldwell, but none of those cities wanted it. Texas Tie and Lumber Preserving Co. built the facility in 1897—16 years before Somerville incorporated as a city.

The tie plant treated materials under contract for the railway company, which bought it in 1905, changed the name to Santa Fe Tie and Lumber Preserving Co. and moved operations about a mile north to its current digs along Texas State Highway 36.

The facility handled materials exclusively for its parent railway company and performed no outside business. It remained a subsidiary of the GCSF—which in 1965 merged into parent company Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, then merged again into Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway and was later named BNSF Railway—until Koppers Inc. purchased it in March 1995.

The Somerville tie plant today operates on 115 acres, employs 90 workers and manufactures more than 1 million railroad ties per year. For about three decades, from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s, it was the nation's largest wood-treatment facility, operating on 300 acres, employing 350 and producing nearly 2 million ties annually.

Koppers, a publicly traded Fortune 500 company that specializes in manufacturing carbon chemicals from coal tar, had been the tie plant's main supplier of creosote. Today it sells 90 percent of the materials treated at the site to BNSF, which remains responsible for existing environmental contamination issues on the land.

The railway company for years had disposed of wastewater in unlined pits, contaminating the aquifer, says TCEQ spokesman Clawson. The state agency has overseen remediation at the facility since the early 1980s; the land beneath the plant remains listed as a federal hazardous waste site under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, according to Clawson.

In the mid-1980s, when Linda Faust worked the graveyard shift as manager of the Handy Dandy convenience store, she'd duck outside for a cigarette every hour or so and watch the thick, dark clouds billow from the smokestacks at the nearby tie plant where her husband, Donnie, worked. The black smoke against the black sky appeared ominous, but she thought nothing of it.

That's just what nighttime looked like in Somerville, she figured.

Still, it annoyed her that her custom-painted Chevy Camaro was frequently coated with chocolate-colored oil rings. They were a pain to remove and only came off if she scrubbed them hard by hand. The same smelly stains embedded her husband's skin and work clothes on a near-daily basis.

Somerville has long been nicknamed "creosote junction" for the main wood preservative used at the plant, which infuses the town with a heavy, diesel-like odor. On a humid day, when the wind blows in your direction, you can still catch a whiff of chemicals strong enough to make your eyes water. But back then, especially in the wee hours, it was punishing.

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