FEATURE Creosote Blues Revisited Nearly 30 years later, a wood-treatment facility continues to stain Somerville. By PAUL SWEENEY ennis 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 1998a month shy of his 46th birthdayof 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 16 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 18, 2008 up in my belly” and he thought he was going to die. Some daysand nightsare 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,
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