American Toxic

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

In depositions, former Somerville tie plant superintendents Samuel Barkley and Vernon "Gene" Welch both admitted they had no clue what chemicals constituted creosote or whether any were considered carcinogenic. Though ultimately responsible for worker safety, both said they never informed employees about potential health risks.

They also expressed a general belief that exposure to low concentrations of creosote and the other heavy-duty pesticides used at the plant did not require any special precautions.

"I don't recall that we gave them—that I gave them any instruction," said Barkley, superintendent from 1971 to 1986, in an April 2003 deposition. "I mean, I would assume that they would make every effort not to get anything on them."

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.

Barkley said that MSDS were kept on file in the main office, where rank-and-file employees were not permitted.

"...I never knew that there was a hazard in creosote," he said, adding that he never researched the subject or received any special training from his corporate bosses at the railway company.

Today 82-year-old Barkley has skin cancer, but he does not attribute it to chemical exposures at the tie plant.

"I was exposed to creosote all my working life," he said in his deposition. "It didn't bother me."

Welch, a Somerville native, junior college dropout and former town mayor who worked at the tie plant for four decades, including eight years as Barkley's handpicked successor as superintendent, from 1986 to 1994, said he believed adverse health effects could only occur in cases of "extreme exposure"—such as, if workers swam in creosote or drank it.

"I don't think that the exposure that the men at the Santa Fe treating plant had was harmful to them," he said in an April 2003 deposition. "...Based on my 40 years of being there, my father working there before me and his father before him, and we never had any problems."

Welch added, referring to Don "Slim" Hightower: "...You can't go around and hold a man's hand all day and say, 'Now, Don, don't get a handful of creosote and wipe your face with it or don't drink any of it.' You can put out the information and the rulebooks and tell them that they must comply with it. But, you know, it's their responsibility."

In a sworn statement, Robert Urbanosky, who worked at the tie plant from 1977 to 1995 and now serves as a Burleson County justice of the peace, said he frequently suffered from headaches and nosebleeds while at the facility. He also testified that the treating chemicals were commonly used for dust control.

"I would never do that; that's against the law," Shaw, the Koppers representative, said in his deposition, adding that creosote has been a federally registered pesticide since the 1980s. "I don't think you can spray any pesticides on the roads for dust control or spray any pesticides just for the hell of it..."

Mendoza said in his deposition that Pentacon, a powder form of the federally registered pesticide pentachlorophenol, was often sprayed to kill weeds and control dust from the late 1960s through the 1980s.

He also testified that on rainy days back in the 1970s, Superintendent Barkley would open the valve tanks on the cylinders and flush the chemicals into unlined ditches behind the plant. Workers called it the "Santa Fe flush."

The tie plant routinely discharged wastewater into local creeks, Mark Stehly, BNSF assistant vice president of environmental research and development, affirmed in an August 2007 deposition.

When asked about the potential hazards of creosote, Stehly said: "There are constituents within creosote that can cause cancer; there's lots of constituents in creosote that don't cause cancer."

In his deposition, Welch said he never warned employees against taking chemicals home on their skin and clothes: "It was such a minimal thing that I wouldn't have been concerned with it."

Regarding protective equipment, Welch said: "I don't know that anybody ever came to me and said, 'I need a respirator...If he would've we would've investigated to see why he needed a respirator and if we felt like it was justified he would have been furnished a respirator."

Cheremisinoff condemned this specific statement in his deposition. "That's not a policy," he said, arguing that the tie plant violated industry standards for waste management practices and worker safety dating back to the 1920s, as well as federal laws implemented by the EPA and OSHA in the early 1970s. "[The superintendent] is supposed to assign respirators to those high-risk operations that require it."

Reached by phone, Welch, who is 73 and still lives in Somerville, said he has no regrets. "I don't think there's anything unusual in this area," he said. "There's cancer everywhere, and it's not just in Somerville."

Wearing a Tyvek moon suit with a $300 Black & Decker vacuum strapped to his back, environmental scientist Paul Rosenfeld in November 2006 climbed into Linda and Donnie Faust's attic and sucked 8 ounces of dust into a glass jar. He sent the container, along with attic-dust samples from 13 other Somerville homes, to a lab in California where test results showed astronomical levels of several cancer-causing chemicals.

Rosenfeld, who was hired by plaintiffs' attorneys, estimated that the cancer risk to the community in Somerville from benzo(a)pyrene exposure was a startling 10,593 times greater than protective health levels deemed acceptable by the EPA. Dioxin and arsenic levels also greatly exceeded EPA standards; similarly elevated contamination levels were detected in the attics of five Somerville school buildings tested this summer (See Suffer the Children).

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