American Toxic

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

For Faust (no relation to the BNSF spokesman), it triggered intense allergies, headaches, nausea and nosebleeds. Eventually, her doctors say, it destroyed her sense of smell.

"If you had your windows down," she says, "you had to close them."

Born in Dallas and raised in East Texas, Faust never had allergy, sinus or stomach problems until she moved to Somerville.

Veteran tie-plant employee Don "Slim" Hightower developed an aggressive skin cancer that devoured his face and killed him.
Courtesy of Jared Woodfill
Veteran tie-plant employee Don "Slim" Hightower developed an aggressive skin cancer that devoured his face and killed him.
Somerville native Dennis Davis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2006.
Daniel Kramer
Somerville native Dennis Davis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2006.

In 1980, at age 22, she met and quickly married Donnie, who was raised in Somerville and began working at the tie plant in 1974 after graduating from high school.

Faust used to complain to her husband about tracking creosote into the house. She had no clue the chemicals might be harmful; she just didn't like the odor and oily residue. She spent many years washing her own clothes in the same washing machine as her husband's creosote-stained work clothes.

The tie plant even provided families with metal barrels that once contained pesticides to use as makeshift barbecues. And, like many other Somerville families, the Fausts for years used creosote-treated railroad ties to line their vegetable garden.

"We thought we were eating healthy," Faust says.

On April 1, 1998, Faust was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of stomach cancer. Three weeks later, doctors removed her entire stomach and attached her esophagus directly to her intestine. They predicted she'd be dead by Christmas. She was 40.

By December, Faust had become a skeleton, dropping from 143 pounds to 89 pounds. Without a stomach, her body lacked the ability to break down foods. Anything she ate or drank was almost instantaneously expelled. She lost control over her bowel movements. "I had accidents in bed," she says. "I had accidents in stores."

Today, at age 50, she's holding steady at 109 pounds but still has frequent accidents. All her teeth have crumbled from malnutrition. Her skin retains little moisture, causing her to appear wrinkled and ashen, older even than her own mother.

"I look in the mirror," she says, "and I cry."

The tie plant's basic operations remain largely the same as a century ago.

Freight cars haul raw lumber—mainly oak, but also beech, gum, hickory and pine—into the facility from forests in East Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. The wood is cut to size in sawmills, loaded onto trams and pushed into long, metal cylinders, where it is heat-pressurized to remove all water and sap, then soaked with a heavy-duty pesticide, usually a solution that is 30 percent creosote and 70 percent petroleum. Excess chemicals are vacuumed from the cylinders, and the tar-black, steaming-hot lumber is removed, stacked for storage or loaded into open rail cars and hauled away.

The 24-hour treating process protects the wood from termites, rodents, rot and fungus for 30 years.

The tie plant for decades operated three shifts, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During peak production, in the early 1970s, it treated 25 tons of wood per day, according to BNSF consulting engineer Donald Corwin's March 2007 deposition.

In the early 1980s, the railway company replaced two wood-waste boilers with a single, more efficient combustion system. But none were ever retrofitted with air pollution controls such as wet or dry scrubbers, electrostatic precipitators or high-temperature fabric filters commonly used within the industry, according to Nicholas Cheremisinoff, a West Virginia-based chemical industry expert who pored through thousands of railway company documents for the plaintiffs to create a historical reconstruction of the facility's operations.

As a result, Cheremisinoff says, hazardous air pollutants were released into the Somerville community on a near-continuous basis for decades. He estimates that the tie plant produced hundreds of thousands of pounds of chemical waste each year and released as much as 10 pounds of uncontrolled air emissions per day as recently as the early 1990s.

"You have an out-of-control situation where you cumulatively are releasing chemicals to the ground and air," said Cheremisinoff in a January 2007 deposition. "Nobody was doing any monitoring; nobody was paying any attention to any of the waste management aspects, the pollution aspects, the chemical handling aspects."

Cheremisinoff said the tie plant's current and former owners have virtually no safety-related records, including what he terms "core company documents" regarding waste disposal, boiler operations, pollution emissions, personnel records and accident reports.

Just before Koppers bought the facility, railway company managers instructed workers to destroy thousands of such documents, 39-year veteran plant employee Michael Mendoza testified in a January 2007 deposition. "They just told us to scrap it," said Mendoza, claiming he spent at least one entire week filling pallets with 4-foot-high stacks of documents, loading them into a truck and shoveling them into the boiler.

Koppers contributed to the purge at the time of the sale, dumping six 55-gallon drums filled with railway company records in College Station landfills, the company's corporate representative, David Shaw, said in a June 2007 deposition.

From the 1970s to the early 1990s—the period when the worst contamination occurred, according to the lawsuits—company managers also instructed workers to throw sawdust into the cylinders after each charge to absorb the chemicals, then use it and other tainted wood scraps to fuel the boilers. According to Cheremisinoff, this caused an incomplete combustion that increased the toxicity of chemicals released into the air as the boilers were not intended to handle hazardous waste.

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