Dennis Davis thought maybe his family was cursed.
In early 1998, his uncle Don developed an aggressive skin cancer that devoured his face. Several months later, his brother Dale died suddenly at age 46 from stomach cancer. A few weeks after that, his granddaughter Makayla was born with severe birth defects.
Davis started thinking about the other families in his small town that he knew had serious illnesses—the cancers, the brain tumors, the babies born with cleft palates.
He went from house to house in his neighborhood and was stunned to find that nearly every family he visited was privately dealing with some type of horrendous disease.
"There's a catastrophe in our community," says Davis, who in November 2006 at age 53 was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "God knows what we're contaminated with."
Somerville, Texas, a sleepy, one-stoplight town 90 miles northwest of Houston, is home to a massive wood-treatment facility, which for more than 100 years churned toxic chemicals into the atmosphere while manufacturing phone poles and bridge supports. Locals call it the "tie plant" since in its earlier days it was the nation's largest producer of railroad cross-ties.
It was also among the industry's worst polluters, according to several prominent environmental scientists who say Somerville residents for decades were exposed to wildly elevated levels of arsenic, dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—all known cancer-causing chemicals considered highly toxic even at low doses.
Dust samples taken during the last year from several Somerville homes and school buildings reveal contamination levels higher even than those found 30 years ago in Love Canal, the notorious chemical landfill in Niagara Falls linked to high rates of cancers and birth defects, according to James Dahlgren, a clinical assistant professor of medicine at UCLA School of Medicine who has been retained by plaintiffs' attorneys in several pending lawsuits against the plant.
"The situation in Somerville is a public-health emergency," Dahlgren says. "The government should be called in to investigate."
An investigation by the Dallas Observer's sister paper, the Houston Press, found:
• Though incidences of stomach cancer across the country have plummeted during the last several decades, now representing just 2 percent of all new cancer cases, Somerville residents are contracting the disease at a rate as much as 40 to 60 times the national average, according to Dahlgren.
• Though industry standards have existed for decades regarding industrial waste management, the tie plant as recently as the mid-1990s neglected to install any air pollution controls on smokestacks, routinely flushed chemical waste into local creeks and improperly used wood-waste boilers as incinerators, causing an incomplete combustion that increased the toxicity of chemicals released into the air.
• Though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has never conducted any off-site testing to determine possible contamination levels for Somerville residents, agency spokesman Terry Clawson claims, "We are confident that the bulk of the contamination is on-site [of the plant itself] and is being remediated."
Davis and more than 200 other Somerville residents have sued current tie plant owner Koppers Inc., a Pittsburgh-based chemical manufacturer, and longtime previous owner Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway (formerly the Chicago-based Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway), alleging the facility's operations have caused an array of serious health problems.
In October, Houston law firm Woodfill & Pressler LLP filed a class-action complaint against Koppers, demanding the company provide all Somerville residents free medical screenings for early cancer detection. The complaint promises that ongoing studies will show Somerville as having "the largest cancer cluster and other malignant disorders ever seen."
The tie plant continues to use various heavy-duty pesticides and wood preservatives, including coal-tar creosote, a tarry, chemical stew which today is banned in more than two dozen countries and classified as a known human carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Dahlgren says the various carcinogens spewed from the facility created a "synergistic effect," increasing their toxicity. As a result, the cancers reported in Somerville are not just occurring in younger people—they are also hyper-aggressive, killing them quickly.
Residents have long suspected that Somerville has a greater incidence of cancer and other severe illnesses than would be expected for a town with just 1,700 people. In the mid-1970s, the Texas Department of Health Services found that mortality rates from gastrointestinal cancers were twice as high in Burleson County compared with the rest of the state, as documented in a report titled "Creosote Blues" published 27 years ago in The Texas Observer.
"It's just assumed here that cancer is what kills you," says Somerville native Edward "E.W." Schoenberg, a plaintiff in the lawsuits who was diagnosed last year with bladder cancer.
Ronald Supak, a tie plant worker for 28 years whose son was born with a cleft palate, says: "My friends are all dying from cancer; I'm waiting for my turn."
The Press spent six weeks interviewing more than three dozen Somerville residents and reviewing tens of thousands of pages of railway company documents, environmental reports and medical records, as well as depositions, affidavits, sworn statements and other court documents collected from legal discovery and federal and state open-records requests with the TCEQ and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
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
• 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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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).
In a March 2007 affidavit, Rosenfeld explained that one extra cancer per million is the level considered acceptable by the EPA, and 100 extra cancers per million is a mandatory clean-up level. In Somerville, he wrote, the cumulative cancer risk to the community is 11,434 extra cancers per million—demanding an immediate remediation and possible evacuation of the area.
"That Somerville tie plant is the most egregious, horrible-acting facility...intentionally burning and poisoning the community...that I have ever seen in my life," said Rosenfeld, principal of Santa Monica, California-based Soil/Water/Air Protection Enterprise, in a December 2006 deposition. "There was a lot of ash and soot from the boiler that basically coated the entire community...and that contamination is still blowing around Somerville today."
Phillip Goad, a toxicologist who conducted environmental testing in Somerville for BNSF Railway, dismissed Rosenfeld's methodology in an August 2007 deposition, arguing that attic dust is "not relevant" for determining risk exposure since residents generally do not spend time in attics.
Goad collected carpet dust in nine houses, including the Fausts', and reportedly found no evidence of contamination that could be linked to the tie plant. He called the carpet a "historical reservoir" that residents contact on a daily basis. When pressed, however, Goad said that he never asked how frequently the families vacuumed or shampooed the carpets—which, he admitted, "would be a factor."
Rosenfeld, meanwhile, called attic dust a "time capsule" for environmental contamination. He argued in his deposition that it represents the best way to quantify historic exposure. In fact, he said, his estimates are conservative since the contaminants in the dust had been diluted over time.
Responding to concerns from Somerville residents, the Texas Department of Health Services conducted three cancer cluster studies in Burleson County from 2004 to 2006, finding a normal-to-expected rate of cancer among residents—a conclusion used by BNSF attorneys to bolster their case.
But the state's cancer cluster studies are flawed, says toxicologist James Dahlgren, since they rely on health information collected from death certificates, which are often inaccurate.
More significantly, Somerville has no hospital. As a result, Dahlgren says, the studies excluded many residents and tie plant employees who moved away or died in hospitals outside Burleson County.
These limitations are noted in the state's final reports: "Cancer incidence data are based on residence at the time of diagnosis. It is possible that some residents who may have been exposed and developed cancer no longer lived in the area at the time of diagnosis so were not included in the data."
James Dahlgren has spent the last year overseeing the first-ever epidemiological study for the entire town of Somerville. Nearly every weekend this summer, a team of his UCLA graduate students flew 1,500 miles to Houston, then commuted by rental car to Somerville, where they went door-to-door asking residents to complete extensive health surveys. So far, they have collected 600—half their goal.
Many residents have also undergone physical examinations, providing blood and urine samples for analysis. Dahlgren will collect and sort all the information to determine whether Somerville residents have a significantly higher incidence of cancer, as well as respiratory and neurological problems, compared with a similarly sized, unexposed control town in Mississippi (he declined to reveal the name of the town).
Dahlgren has published the only peer-reviewed studies on the health effects of people living near wood-treatment facilities. Two studies centered on towns in Mississippi—one in Grenada, which still operates a wood-treatment plant owned by Koppers Inc., and another in Columbus, home to a now-defunct facility owned by Kerr-McGee Corp. (which was purchased last year by Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp.).
In each case, Dalhgren found that simply living near a wood-treatment facility caused elevated blood levels of several known carcinogens, including dioxins. General cancer rates were higher; upper respiratory problems and sinusitis were common.
Dahlgren expects cancer rates in Somerville will be far worse even than those in Columbus and Grenada, since the tie plant's operations were significantly larger and continued to use pesticides such as chromated copper arsenic and pentachlorophenol as recently as the late 1980s, long after the others had stopped because of widely reported health risks.
Dahlgren has already identified a dozen cases of stomach cancer in Somerville—which, he says, is as much as 40 to 60 times the national average for a town its size.
"Gastric cancer is rare for people in their 40s and 50s," says Dahlgren, who treated rescue workers exposed to toxins at the World Trade Center site on 9/11 and served as lead toxicologist in the famous Erin Brockovich case against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. "It's declining everywhere. But here, it's gone up."
Agency spokesman Clawson says the TCEQ "has no knowledge" of the recent environmental testing performed in Somerville.
The TCEQ has received 17 odor complaints against the tie plant since 2002 but has never conducted off-site testing to determine contamination levels for nearby residents. "We have not been able to determine the full extent of contamination," Clawson wrote in an e-mail. But he says his agency remains confident that most of the contamination is at the plant site itself, where it is being remediated.
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.
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?
Patterson: Did you like pickles?
Faust: On hamburgers or something.
Patterson: Did you eat much pickled food?
Patterson: Did you ever eat sardines?
Patterson: How about anchovies?
Patterson: Did you eat things like pickled okra or anything like that?
"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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.