Creosote Blues Revisited

Nearly 30 years later, a wood-treatment facility continues to stain Somerville.
by Published on

Dennis Davis’ uncle died in his arms on New Year’s morning in 2005. Cancer had eaten away Don Hightower’s face. “He had lost his nose and the upper part of his mouth,” Davis said.

A few years earlier, Hightower had won a mediation settlement against his employer, BNSF Railway Co., North America’s second-largest railroad, “for disfigurement.” The railroad is the biggest subsidiary of Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. Before Hightower died, he made Davis promise he would seek justice for other workers at the company.

Davis began a door-to-door inquiry into the health of his community of Somerville. He discovered that almost every household in this sleepy railroad village of roughly 1,700 people, situated about halfway between Austin and Houston, was coping with premature death, cancer or birth defects.

“It seemed as if every family was dealing privately with something horrible,” he said. “I thought that something catastrophic had definitely been taking place.”His neighbors had stories that were eerily similar to his own. In addition to his uncle, Davis’ father died in 1989 at age 58 “when his heart blew up on him,” Davis said. There was no autopsy, so whether the elder Davis had cancer remains an open question.

Not so with his brother, Alvin Dale Davis, “who never smoked a cigarette in his life.” Alvin Davis died in 1998-a month shy of his 46th birthday-of a stomach cancer that metastasized into his spinal cord and brain.

A month after his brother’s death, Davis’ youngest daughter gave birth to her first child. According to Davis, his grandchild, a girl born on December 2, 1998, suffered from a birth defect: Her intestines were not properly connected to her stomach. Airlifted to Scott & White Hospital in Temple for surgery, the child survived. She is alive today, but at 9 years old, “she struggles and can’t run or play like other kids,” Davis said.

Davis himself was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in November 2006 and has undergone chemotherapy and radiation treatment. At one point, he said, “15 gallons of fluid built up in my belly” and he thought he was going to die. Some days-and nights-are harder than others. “It’s been a rollercoaster of staph infections, fatigue, tiredness, not having any energy,” he said.

Like his brother, Davis never smoked. But he, his brother, and the other men in the family all worked for decades at the sprawling wood-treatment plant in the heart of town, which touted itself as the world’s largest producer of railroad ties. It also produced bridge supports, utility poles, signposts, and treated lumber, turning out as much as 8 million cubic feet of treated wood each year. The Observer first reported on chemical contamination at the plant in 1980.

Even Somerville residents who did not work at the plant, especially wives who laundered their husbands’ heavily soiled and contaminated clothing, came in constant contact with the chemicals.

Now the question of whether the company should be held responsible for endemic sickness in the town is tied up in multiple lawsuits, including a class action suit filed in Burleson County on behalf of more than 2,500 people.

Nicholas Cheremisinoff, a chemical engineer, former Exxon Mobil Corp. employee, and a consultant to attorneys representing residents, declared in an affidavit that the Somerville operation “was not only the largest railroad tie-producing plant in the United States but … it was the largest, or among the largest, polluters in the wood treating industry.

“The Somerville plant is a classic example of a facility that flew under the radar screen of the regulators for years,” Cheremisinoff wrote. He charged that the railway company obtained grandfathered licenses “in a deceptive manner” for decades, which enabled it to “continue polluting until it sold the facility.”

Owned for most of the last century by Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., the tie plant has been in continuous operation since 1904. In 1995, Burlington Northern paid $4 billion to merge with what had become Santa Fe Pacific Corp. to form BNSF. That same year, Pittsburgh-based Koppers Industries Inc. purchased the plant.

To make wood resistant to insects, fungi, spores, rodents, and the corrosive forces of weather, the production process involved pressure-soaking wood at high temperatures in a bath of chemicals, including creosote and coal-tar pitch, pentachlorophenol, or PCP, and chromated copper arsenate. The operation also used the solvent naptha to remove water and sap from wood in high-temperature pressure vessels.

All these chemicals are toxic and associated with serious health problems; many have been linked to cancer and birth defects in humans and laboratory animals. Their dangers have been known for decades. Almost 28 years ago, the Observer published a cover story, “Creosote Blues,” on contamination problems at the plant. The story detailed the dangers of creosote and other chemicals used at the facility, including dioxin, exposure to which can cause cancer and birth defects, among other ailments.

The railway company issued hard hats and maintained a plant safety committee that cut down on accidents such as falls, burns, and cuts. But it never warned workers they should wear neoprene gloves, aprons, respirators, and other protective gear, or that they needed showers, hand-washing areas, and clean work clothing.

“Over the entire period of ownership,” Cheremisinoff charged, the railway “kept both the public and its workers misinformed and uneducated on the toxic and hazardous nature of its pollution. It is a company that refused to invest a penny in the proper control of technologies that were readily available and intended to protect the public and workers from toxic wastes and pollution.”

A BNSF spokesperson declined to comment, instead directing the Observer to a company-owned Web site, somervillefacts.com. “The plant has operated consistently with applicable laws and regulations and it continues to maintain strict safety and environmental standards,” the site’s home page states.

Dennis Davis, who once had been chairman of the safety committee at the tie plant, asked the superintendent around 1987 whether creosote was harmful. “He said it wasn’t nothing in it that could hurt you,” Davis told a Fort Worth courtroom last January, appearing as a witness in a $6 million personal injury suit against BNSF brought by Linda Faust, wife of longtime plant worker Donnie Faust.

Faust blames her stomach cancer on the toxic chemicals on the clothes she laundered almost daily for her husband, as well as on the polluted environment. A Fort Worth jury found otherwise in a 10-2 decision.

Jurors were conflicted: Press interviews showed most jurors tilted toward the company because Faust had smoked half a pack of cigarettes daily and suffered from a stomach virus. Railroad attorneys portrayed the linkage of chemicals to cancer as “junk science.”

The courtroom, however, served as a forum to air practices at the plant. Employees testified that their clothes were regularly soaked through with foul-smelling, gummy creosote. So poor were hygiene facilities that they had the substance on their hands as they ate. Sam Barkley, plant superintendent from 1971 to 1986, testified that while he attended companywide safety meetings in Chicago, he didn’t remember hearing about any health dangers associated with creosote, or seeing any specific documents such as “material data safety sheets.”

Donnie Faust testified about routine, nightly incineration of creosote-soaked wood chips and sawdust, when thick, black smoke would not be visible. While the plant was required by permit to burn treated wood at a “metered” rate, “you’d just burn it as fast as you could.”

An 18-year veteran at the plant, Bobby Urbanowsky, testified that he thought it was deceptive to burn treated wood at night but “you did what you were told … you didn’t cause no flak and get in trouble.”

The jury was told about what was known as “The Santa Fe Flush.” Donnie Faust testified that when the sludge ponds were filled with debris and “the bugs, microorganisms, wouldn’t eat up all of the bacteria,” plant operators would wait for a heavy rain. Then workers would “open valves” and allow contaminates to course into Thompson’s Creek, which ran alongside the plant and through the town.

When the Environmental Protection Agency and other government authorities came through, their inspections were invariably announced ahead of time. “We always knew they were coming,” Urbanowsky testified. And Donnie Faust told the court, “We did major cleanups. We put on a good show for them.”

Urbanowsky testified that in answering a query from inspectors, he once told them “treated material had been buried on the outside layers of the plant.” Afterward, V.E. Welch, the plant superintendent, “told me I needed to keep my mouth shut,” Urbanowsky said.

In 2003, the European Union ordered a ban on creosote in the wood-treating process; the U.S. has yet to follow suit. Just in the last quarter of 2007, Burlington Northern earned $517 million.

Longtime Observer contributor Paul Sweeney authored the magazine’s 1980 cover story “Creosote Blues.”