American Toxic

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

Dahlgren says he believes the tie plant's operations contaminated the aquifer throughout Somerville, which gets its drinking water from nearby Lyons.

According to Dahlgren, government agencies often will not investigate environmental contamination while litigation is pending. Clawson denied this.

Dahlgren predicts that present-day health risks in Somerville will exceed those found five years ago in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, where blood dioxin levels in residents were three times higher than the national average, according to a government-led investigation by the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, a division of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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 that case, however, demonstrating liability proved impossible since 14 toxic industrial facilities surround the affected communities, set just south of Lake Charles.

In rural Somerville, there is only the tie plant.

It doesn't help Linda Faust's case against the tie plant that she smoked a half-pack of cigarettes every day since she was 17 or that she once sought treatment for marijuana dependency.

At the same time Faust was diagnosed with stomach cancer, doctors also found that she had Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium that may increase the risk of cancer.

"The only likely causes of Mrs. Faust's stomach cancer are smoking and the H. Pylori bacterium, two carcinogens outlined by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as causes of stomach cancer," according to a media statement from BNSF.

In depositions, BNSF attorneys interrogated Faust and other plaintiffs about other possible causes for their illnesses. They pointed to an aluminum refinery in Rockdale, 46 miles from Somerville, as a potential source of environmental contamination. They asked whether the plaintiffs cooked with charcoal grills, fried bacon without a vent or ate pickled foods—which, if consumed in large quantities, may increase the risk of stomach cancer.

In a November 2006 deposition, Heather Patterson, attorney for Galveston-based firm McLeod, Alexander, Powel & Apffel, P.C., which represents BNSF, quizzed Linda Faust on her diet. The transcript reads as follows:

Patterson: Before you had your surgery and before you found out that you had gastric cancer, did you eat a lot of salty food?

Faust: No.

Patterson: Did you like pickles?

Faust: On hamburgers or something.

Patterson: Did you eat much pickled food?

Faust: No.

Patterson: Did you ever eat sardines?

Faust: No.

Patterson: How about anchovies?

Faust: No.

Patterson: Did you eat things like pickled okra or anything like that?

Faust: No.

"It's ridiculous," says Jared Woodfill, the 39-year-old plaintiff attorney, who also happens to serve as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party. "The tie plant was poisoning this town for decades, and they're asking if she ate pickles."

Linda Faust's smoking habits and bacterial infection are certainly contributing risk factors to her illness, says Dahlgren, the toxicologist. But by themselves, he says, they may not have caused her stomach cancer—especially at such an early age. Almost all cancers from cigarettes and diet occur in people over 60, he says.

Despite all that she's gone through, Faust has mixed feelings about possibly leaving.

"People here are friendly," she says. "They wave; they know their neighbors and all the kids' first names; you run out to buy a loaf of bread and you're lucky if you make it back home in an hour because of all the people you see along the way.

"Somerville is a nice town, actually," she says. "This isn't a place we're dying to get out of."

Dennis Davis knows he has created many enemies while raising awareness about the possible health risks in Somerville. He's received death threats; the tires on his all-terrain vehicles were slashed.

"It got to where I wouldn't walk out of the house without a loaded pistol on me," he says. "Everybody was against me; nobody wanted to hear about it. They'd say, 'You need to leave this alone; you need to butt out; the railroad built this town.'"

Along the way, some people have switched sides in the fight, if for no other reason than to put the decades-old rumors to rest and find out if the problems are real.

In September, a Tarrant County judge ordered a mistrial in Linda Faust's case when plaintiff attorneys mentioned the other lawsuits; a new trial is set to begin next month, representing the first of more than 200 complaints now pending against the tie plant's current and former owners.

Dennis Davis' case is set for February 25. He knows that if he wins, it could destroy the town.

Which is exactly what Dahlgren and others are saying should have happened a long time ago.

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