American Toxic

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

In his November 2006 deposition, 33-year veteran employee Donnie Faust said he fed as much as 5 tons of chemical-treated wood into the boilers per shift in the early to mid-1980s. He said that managers specifically ordered him to burn the treated materials at night to avoid complaints from townspeople—a claim supported by several other former tie plant employees.

It wasn't until years later that Linda Faust realized her own husband had shoveled the wood into the boilers, causing the black smoke and fierce odor she endured while working at the Handy Dandy.

"My job depended on it," Donnie Faust explained in his deposition. "My mother raised me and told me, 'If I told you the sky is pink, you will believe it's pink because I said so.' So, I learned to respect authority.

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.

"They told me to do a job, I did a job."

Dennis Davis oversaw the treatment cylinders and frequently had to climb inside them for cleaning and repairs.

"There was no way to avoid the chemicals," he says. "It burned your eyes; it cooked your sinuses; it took your breath away."

The trams that carried the raw lumber into the metal cylinders—which measured 153 feet long, 8 feet wide and 8 feet tall—often bumped against each other, spilling creosote and other hazardous chemical solutions. Debris collected under the cylinder's heat coils, occasionally causing the trams to derail.

Before entering the cylinders, Davis would stuff his mouth with a handkerchief or a torn part of his shirt. "A lot of men, they would even put a piece of carpet in their mouth, and they would go off in there," he says. "Some people came back out of those cylinders with nosebleeds."

Even as recently as the early 1990s, Davis and other employees were given no safety equipment besides a hard hat and goggles. They went into the cylinders wearing only jeans, cotton shirts and steel-toed boots and even provided their own mule-hide leather gloves, which tended to absorb the chemicals.

"You'd take your gloves off and your skin would be three shades of yellow," Davis says. "Literally, it would just peel two or three layers of your skin off, and you would be sore and hurting for days and weeks on end until you healed."

Today employees at the tie plant who enter the cylinders or work directly with hazardous chemicals are equipped with full-face shields, respirators and Tyvek rubber suits, boots and gloves, said Shaw, the Koppers representative, in his deposition.

According to Cheremisinoff, such protective gear should have been provided decades earlier.

Coal-tar products were among the first substances known to produce cancer in the workplace. In the late 18th century, English physician Sir Percival Pott observed in chimney sweeps a high incidence of scrotal cancer caused by chimney tar and soot. Subsequent studies of occupational diseases linking creosote to skin cancer in railroad workers were published in the 1920s in the British Medical Journal and the 1950s in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Today coal-tar creosote is classified as a known human carcinogen; the tie plant for decades also used other heavily restricted pesticides, such as pentachlorophenol and chromated copper arsenic, which have been linked to cancers and birth defects (see Birth Defects).

As recently as 1980, chemical manufacturing companies warned against clothing contamination and skin contact with coal-tar creosote solutions. Some recommended that employers provide showers and work uniforms to preclude laundering contaminated clothes at home.

The warnings appeared on material safety data sheets, or MSDS, a system for cataloging information such as toxicity, health effects and suggested protective equipment for chemicals and chemical mixtures. MSDS have been prevalent since the 1950s; the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has mandated their use since 1986 under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.

Dennis Davis, who served as safety committee chairman at the Somerville tie plant in the early 1990s, says he never saw or even heard of MSDS until Koppers bought the facility. Several current and former tie plant employees have testified that nobody ever informed them that the chemicals they handled on a daily basis might cause cancer.

Davis' uncle, Don "Slim" Hightower, worked at the tie plant from 1969 to 1995 as a machinist. In a November 2002 deposition, he described how he routinely got splattered with creosote while using a pressure hose to clean the inside of the cylinders. When he complained to a superintendent, he was told to "just go on with your work and just wash your hands or whatever."

In the late 1990s, Hightower was diagnosed with skin cancer that rapidly ate his face and the bones on the roof of his mouth. "People stare at you; they wonder what happened to you," he said in his videotaped deposition, wiping his eye. "Little kids point at you; they don't understand why this is."

In November 2001, Hightower filed a lawsuit against BNSF Railway under the Federal Employers Liability Act, which gives railroad workers not covered by regular workers' compensation laws the right to sue their employers for on-the-job injuries.

He received an undisclosed settlement in June 2003 and died 18 months later.

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