BLOOD UNDER THE TRACKS

 Sunshine Mill Winery in The Dalles, Ore., lies just on the other side of the overpass from the AmeriTies West facility, where railroad ties treated with creosote off-gas in the yard while awaiting transport. The winery holds events in their outdoor amphitheater including movie nights in the summer.

Sunshine Mill Winery in The Dalles, Ore., lies just on the other side of the overpass from the AmeriTies West facility, where railroad ties treated with creosote off-gas in the yard while awaiting transport. The winery holds events in their outdoor amphitheater including movie nights in the summer.

May 6, 2018 Part 1 (Go here for Part 2 and Part 3)

People in The Dalles, Ore., say their air is being poisoned by a company that uses creosote to make railroad ties. Some say they are crazy, but a bevy of court documents and medical studies back them up. 

Last week, a federal health agency issued a skeptical report casting official doubt on their claims, saying “no apparent public health hazard existed.” But some say its report was marred by outdated and missing data. Plus the agency failed to talk to any of the victims. 

Over the last decade, the courts have ordered the creosote industry to pay billions of dollars for personal injuries and environmental damage, including the biggest bankruptcy settlement in EPA history. But in a simple twist of fate, The Dalles got nothing out of these deals.

Why was The Dalles left out? And why are its residents still being poisoned?

By PAUL KOBERSTEIN
Reporting by JESSICA APPLEGATE
Photographs by SARAH CLARK

THE DALLES, Ore. - Air pollution kills an estimated 3.7 million of people every year, the World Health Organization reports. Tiffany Woodside vows she and her two daughters won’t be among them. But their odds don’t seem to be great.

The 43-year-old mom and her small family live in The Dalles, Ore., where the air is polluted by a plant that uses creosote as a wood preservative in the manufacture of railroad ties. The city of 15,000 people sits about 80 miles east of Portland at the east end of the scenic Columbia Gorge, its air thick with a soup of cancer-causing chemicals emitted by the creosote company, AmeriTies West, LLC. It produces up to 1.2 million railroad ties per year in The Dalles.

 

Tiffany Woodside, a third generation resident of The Dalles, Ore., sits beside a stack of her medical records. Tiffany suffers from multiple health problems including severe anemia.

Woodside has the gritty toughness of an athlete who used to compete in triathlons,  rugged competitions involving long-distance biking, running and swimming. But now she says she feels like a prisoner in her own home. Like several other people in The Dalles interviewed by Cascadia Times, she has rearranged her life to minimize contact with the pollution and the outdoors. Others have simply moved out of town in order to flee the fumes.

“I was a tomboy, active, everything came natural,” she says of growing up in The Dalles. “We were encouraged to grow up outdoors. I would wake up before school and swim. Now we are stuck indoors getting sicker. We love the dirt and growing things and our birds and bees and squirrels. I want to cry thinking of it.”

Last week, a federal agency issued a health report that cast doubt on whether the air pollution in The Dalles is truly causing the health problems that Woodside and others in The Dalles say it is.

“Exposure to ambient air concentrations of naphthalene and benzo[a]pyrene did not pose chronic non‐cancer public health risks,” the report said in reference to two pollutants detected in the air. In its assessment of cancer risk, the report said, “The theoretical additional risk is much smaller than a typical  individual’s overall risk of cancer.”

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a part of the Centers for Disease Control, issued the 38-page “Health Consultation Letter” to the North Central Public Health District in The Dalles. It said the air in The Dalles could cause slightly more than 20 extra cancers in 1 million people who are exposed continuously for 33 years.

ATSDR did not conduct any interviews with people who live in The Dalles. Nor did it conduct any of its own sampling of the air, dust and water, relying solely on air monitoring data collected by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 2016.
 

“The EPA hasn’t been updating their reference concentrations as often as they should.” -- Dr. James Dahlgren, a California toxicologist


Some of ATSDR’s conclusions are based in part on determinations by the US Environmental Protection Agency that some of its critics say are badly out of date. One such critic, Dr. James Dahlgren, a leading California toxicologist, said, “The EPA hasn’t been updating their reference concentrations as often as they should."

“To some extent I share that frustration,” said Dr. Susanna Wegner, a toxicologist from the Oregon Health Authority.

Dr. Wegner said the letter from ATSDR does not mean the health problems experienced by people in The Dalles are not real, nor does it mean they are not related to air pollution. “Some health problems may be related to odors. We know that odors can cause immediate, strong physiological responses," she said.
 

ATSDR used “outdated industry research to try and prove everything is safe. Meanwhile babies are dying, kids are sick, and asthma, chronic disease and cancer are an epidemic. These agencies don’t want to test our dust, soil or water because they know what they will find.” -- Tiffany Woodside


Woodside accused ATSDR of using “outdated industry research to try and prove everything is safe. Meanwhile babies are dying, kids are sick, and asthma, chronic disease and cancer are an epidemic. These agencies don’t want to test our dust, soil or water because they know what they will find.”

The letter arrived less than a month after the DEQ released air monitoring data showing that people in The Dalles are breathing potentially unhealthy levels of at least 17 carcinogenic chemicals, including naphthalene, the main component of creosote. Many of these pollutants, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, have also been linked to pulmonary, respiratory, neurological and immunological disorders. They have also been found to inhibit early-age childhood development.

The DEQ is now investigating whether a different suite of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, might also be polluting the air in The Dalles. The individual VOCs they are looking for include chemicals associated with creosote plants including benzene and several other potent carcinogens. The DEQ expects to have data later this year.

However, the DEQ is not gathering data about house dust, a third source of potential contamination that might also be threatening people’s health in The Dalles, said agency spokesman Greg Svelund. The ATSDR report said nothing about contaminated dust.

But it might want to take a look at it. Two studies conducted in 2002 and 2007 by Dr. Dahlgren, a professor of occupational medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine, show that tiny dust particles emitted by these plants can contaminate nearby homes with deadly carcinogens, based on an analysis of soils in yards and house dust in attics.

The EPA says breathing tiny particles has been shown to pose serious health risks regardless of their composition. But the composition of the particles identified in Dahlgren’s study was particularly gruesome.

Dr. Dahlgren’s research found that dust in the attics of homes located within two miles of a wood treatment plant in Mississippi was contaminated with a carcinogenic pesticide known as pentachlorophenol, which is also known as penta or PCP. Now retired, he helped Erin Brockovich reveal hexavalent chromium contamination in a California town in the 1990s, leading to a celebrated lawsuit and a successful movie.

The attic dust was also found to contain dioxins and furans, which the EPA says are among the most carcinogenic chemicals known to science.

The creosote plant in The Dalles used pentachlorophenol alongside creosote to treat wood from 1950 to 1987, EPA records show.

 

Dr. James Dahlgren/Photo courtesy James Dahlgren Medical

“Penta is contaminated with dioxin, and they can’t get it out,” Dr. Dahlgren said in a telephone interview with Cascadia Times from his office in Sunnyvale, Calif. “That’s one of the reasons it’s been banned in many countries.”

Moreover, Dr. Dahlgren also sampled the blood of people living near active and former wood treatment facilities and found that it contained elevated levels of pentachlorophenol as well as several types of dioxin and furans, the study said.

This finding of toxic contamination in the blood of nearby residents was confirmed in a 2013 report by a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control.

Could dioxin be silently lurking in the attics of homes in The Dalles? It’s possible, says Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority. “It is our understanding that use of pentachlorophenol often leads to production of dioxins and furans. Given historical use of pentachlorophenol in The Dalles, it is entirely possible that dioxins and furans could be present in house dust above background levels."

Dr. Dahlgren said he believes that if government agencies looked for dioxin in The Dalles, they would almost certainly find it.

The federal government classifies both PCP and dioxin as “persistent organic compounds” that are highly toxic, remain for long periods of time in the environment and accumulate in animals as they pass up the food chain, reaching their greatest concentrations in predatory birds, fish, mammals, and humans.

Steve Lawrence, who has been mayor of The Dalles since 2012, defends the plant, which he says provide a “good family income” to about 50 employees, but questions whether the treated crossties should be stored in the open air. He said the ties become the property of the Union Pacific Railroad after treatment. “The real question here,” he says, is why the railroad won’t store the ties in an isolated location away from the city’s residential neighborhoods “as soon as they are treated.”

“I feel at this point that they are stonewalling,” Lawrence said. “They acknowledge this method has been done other places but take no steps here.”

Michelle Cole, a spokeswoman for AmeriTies, dodged the question about whether the company could move the storage yard to a safer location. “AmeriTies changed its formula in December 2016 and the subsequent data reflects a corresponding decrease in the ambient naphthalene levels,” was all she would say.

She also issued this statement from John L. McGinley, president of AmeriTies West LLC: “AmeriTies is pleased to learn of the latest monitoring results showing decreased naphthalene levels in The Dalles. Our company has modified our operations, invested in new equipment and, in December 2016, switched to a new, low-naphthalene treatment formula. AmeriTies continues to conscientiously comply with all state and federal health and safety regulations.”

AmeriTies reduced its use of naphthalene as an odor control measure required by a “mutual agreement and order” the company and the DEQ signed in 2016 in response to a large number of odor complaints.

 

Process water and creosote tanks at AmeriTies West in The Dalles, Ore.

"Doctoring, doctoring, doctoring"

The wooden crossties manufactured at AmeriTies and similar plants across the US not only bind railroad tracks together, they connect the entire nation. Railroads have been around for centuries yet remain as vital to commerce as any modern transportation or communication convenience. Maybe their prominence is on the decline, but they aren’t going away.

The railroad industry sees creosote as a key to the railroad industry’s existence, and disdains alternative materials, such as concrete. With creosote, the wooden crosstie can serve effectively for up to 50 years or more. Without creosote, it might survive a decade.

In the United States, some 3,000 crossties are buried beneath each mile of steel railroad track, each set about 20 inches apart. There could be as many as 800 million in the entire country. They measure about 8 feet in length, and the railroad companies add or replace about 15 million of them each year. The railroads insist that without creosote there can be no trains.

The focus here, however, is not on whatever is speeding over top, or even flying off, the rails. Consider instead the dangers that lurk beneath the rails, or to borrow a phrase inspired by a Bob Dylan song, the blood under the tracks. People who live in towns like The Dalles have learned that railroad crossties are far more insidious than just wooden planks whose only job is to hold steady while a 20,000-ton freight train rumbles overhead.

Located just outside a National Scenic Area, The Dalles isn’t the kind of place one would normally associate with debilitating air pollution, like Beijing or New Dehli. The landscape is breathtaking, but only if you overlook the ghastly Superfund site along the Columbia River shoreline next to the creosote plant. The EPA says contamination in soils along the river includes high levels of naphthalene, PCP and numerous other toxic chemicals, which like the air pollution has been traced back to the plant. The contaminated soils have been capped with rip rap and gravel, theoretically neutralizing any health risk they might pose to the public.

But the potential risks posed by the air pollution have not been neutralized. Although AmeriTies officials say the plant now emits only half as much naphthalene than it did just a year ago, DEQ data show that the total amount of VOC chemicals in its emissions have gone up by about 5 percent in the same period of time.

The coal-tar creosote in use at the AmeriTies plant today is a by-product produced during the distillation of coal tar for the steel industry. A thick dark yellowish liquid comprised of up to 10,000 different chemicals, its main use is to treat freshly cut logs to control wood-destroying insects, rot and decay before they are put into use as railroad crossties and utility poles. Residential uses of creosote, such as in lawn furniture, decks, playground equipment, gardens and landscaping, have been banned by the EPA since the 1980s because of cancer risks.

The logs are drenched with the creosote under heat and pressure, a process that enables it to penetrate deeply into the wood. The logs are then sent to a outdoor storage yard on site where they sit to dry and cure for about six months after treatment. As they dry, they give off fumes that have been reported to stink up – even poison – the entire town, DEQ data show. The plant is not required to control emissions from the yard, where the bulk of the pollution originates.

Woodside, who lives on a bluff overlooking the plant about a mile to the south, a location well within the zone of potential dioxin contamination, believes some of her health problems are related to the musty mothballs odor saturating the air, which she and many other people identify as naphthalene. Naphthalene is the main ingredient in mothballs.

 

Tiffany Woodside, a long-time resident of The Dalles, Ore., runs multiple air purifiers in her home 24 hours a day in an effort to mitigate the health impacts of creosote on her and her family.

Woodside keeps her doors and windows closed to block out the fumes, even on hot summer days, which in The Dalles can mean stuffy temperatures that can exceed 110 degrees. An air purifier hums all day long in her living room. “I have spent most all my money on air filters,” she says. “I am too sick to move without assurance of future security. I am stuck in the mental hell of watching my children grow up like this.”

“I’m not going to blame all my health problems on the pollution,” Woodside says. “But pollution has controlled my life. As the years have gone by, my ‘well’ days have fizzled out.” Her doctors have told her to move. But she says she can’t afford to move, given the limited income she receives from Social Security Disability payments. She fears her life is slowly withering away just as she sees life slipping from those around her.

“You go to the doctor, you go to the next doctor, nobody knows what’s wrong,” she says. “That is the story here of people doctoring, doctoring, doctoring, not feeling well, and then oh! You have a month to live.”

Other residents of The Dalles have been able to flee the fumes. One is Kristina Cronkright, 35, who lived in The Dalles until last September when she escaped to nearby Hood River. Along with her husband and young son she had moved to The Dalles in 2014, hoping to put down roots while her husband angled for a career job at the new Google data center in town.

They rented a home on the east side of town not far from where the Woodside family lives.

Soon after moving in, she found that she “couldn’t get out of bed because of super heavy fatigue and lots of migraines,” she says. “I started getting migraines when I was 17, but before I moved to The Dalles I had it under control.”

She says the foul air forced them to move two months later to the west side of The Dalles, where they thought they would escape the fumes. They were wrong.

“Living on the east side of town it’s pervasive all day long,” she says, “even in the evenings, even on the weekends because you’ve got the treated ties that are on the lot, heating up in the sun. On the east side of town there is very little respite from it.”

Conditions were somewhat better on the west side of town, she says, but the air was still thick with odors at certain parts of the day, especially in late morning. “I was a little naïve because I thought that would change things for us. I will never forget how I felt when I first smelled it at our west side house. My heart just dropped. I literally did not think it that it would be on that side of town.”

By this time, she had a son who had developed autism. She installed three air purifiers at her new house “and we just stayed inside. We watched a lot of TV and played video games even though I’m a nature buff and I resented the hell out of that.”

 

Sherrin Ungren, a resident of The Dalles, Ore., for more than 25 years and a member of the grassroots group, The Dalles Air Coalition, advocates for air quality monitoring and curbing creosote and naphthalene emissions at AmeriTies West.

Then she got a boil on her neck and couldn’t take it anymore. “I finally reached my limit,” she says, and the family relocated to Hood River. In the seven months her family has been living there, she says, their health has become progressively better.

When living in The Dalles, Cronkite met Tiffany Woodside and two other women who reported similar health problems, Rachel Najjar and Sherrin Ungren, and together they formed The Dalles Air Coalition to organize their advocacy for clean air. The four women have worked long hours researching and advocating their cause over the last two years.

Najjar says that her family’s health was compromised by similar symptoms as the other women. Her four daughters especially have suffered from a series of rashes, nasty boils, headaches, intestinal issues, respiratory issues and what she describes as “the most terrifying hemolytic episodes.”

“When my girls would have an active episode, they would have excessive thirst (I'm talking gallons of water), vomiting profusely, severe stomach cramps, fatigue, they would turn pale and their urine would be a weird brownish color,” she says.

In September 2016, they fled to Illinois and recently moved back to Hood River by means of her husband's traveling medical job. She avoids going back into The Dalles whenever she can. “Every time I go into town I get sick,” she says. “As soon as I leave I feel fine.”

She says that all symptoms are indicative of hemolysis, the destruction of red blood cells. She has met many other people in town with similar symptoms. Her concern that blood problems can be triggered by the pollution in the town’s air has been confirmed by the Oregon Health Authority.

Modie, the spokesman for the agency, says exposure to naphthalene has been known to cause blood problems in individuals with a genetic condition known as “glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency,” or G6PDD.

The US Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, estimates that 400 million people worldwide have glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency, mostly in certain parts of Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It occurs most frequently in areas near the equator where malaria is prevalent.

“It affects about 1 in 10 African American males in the United States,” it said, potentially raising an environmental justice issue. The 2010 US Census shows that 0.5 percent of the population in The Dalles are African American. Najar's husband and father of her children is from West Africa.

“We are aware that G6PD deficiency is a factor that could make some people more susceptible to the effects of naphthalene on blood,” Modie says. “Qualitatively, we recognize this as an important consideration when we look at health risks from naphthalene. Unfortunately, the available science on naphthalene is currently too limited for us to do any kind of quantitative analysis around that question.”

“In short, we lack the scientific data we would need to quantify the difference in susceptibility to naphthalene for individuals with and without this genetic variation.”

The state of Oregon has looked to the EPA and the state of California for guidance on what levels of air contamination are safe for everyone, including the most vulnerable populations.

Regardless, the available data show that air in The Dalles has exceeded California’s “safe” levels ever since it was first tested in 2011, and in the view of Najjar and others, most likely long before then. The creosote plant in town was first opened in 1922.

The EPA's Outdated Data

In an interview, Dr. Dahlgren said his research shows that exposure to the “very low” levels of wood treatment chemicals found in the air in The Dalles and elsewhere can cause serious health problems. “In Europe they banned creosote years ago 'cause it’s just terrible, and Penta too. The US is like a third world country in the way they treat these chemicals. It’s absolutely unforgivable.”

According to the EPA web site, the last time it reviewed the cancer and non-cancer threats posed by naphthalene, the main ingredient in creosote, was 1998, but we now know a great deal more about the chemical’s potential health effects.

The EPA said in 1998 that naphthalene was only a “possible” human carcinogen and that its carcinogenic potential “cannot be determined” based on a lack of human and animal data, which Dahlgren said was an outdated finding.
 

“In Europe they banned creosote years ago 'cause it’s just terrible, and Penta too. The US is like a third world country in the way they treat these chemicals. It’s absolutely unforgivable.” -- Dr. James Dahlgren
 

But in December 2000, the National Toxicological Program at the US Department of Health and Human Services released the results of a two-year inhalation study on laboratory rats that it said provided “strong evidence” for the carcinogenicity of naphthalene. In 2005, ATSDR went much further when it declared that naphthalene is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The EPA’s views on the non-cancer health effects of naphthalene have failed to keep up with emerging science.

In 2002 and 2007, Dahlgren published three papers (herehere and here) detailing the potential health consequences of low-level exposure to creosote, and in 2009 and ATSDR cited all three papers in a report entitled Toxicological Profile for Creosote.

“Long-term residents near a wood treatment plant who had low-level environmental exposure to wood processing waste chemicals had significantly more adverse health effects than unexposed controls matched for gender and age; these health effects included cancer as well as respiratory, skin and neurological problems,” the ATSDR report said.

ATSDR compared the symptoms of an exposed population with a non-exposed population and found that the exposed population developed cancer five times more often than people in the unexposed population, were three times more likely to suffer from bronchitis, and four times more likely to have asthma.

“Health effects included cancer as well as respiratory, skin and neurological problems,” ATSDR reported, adding that exposed populations also reported a “prevalence of mucous membrane irritation, skin and self-reported neurological symptoms such as irritability, light-headedness, and extreme fatigue.”

The 2002 study by Dr. Dahlgren examined naphthalene levels in Columbus, Miss., a small city in the western part of the state. As in The Dalles, Columbus has been polluted by a creosote plant.


Data reported by Dahlgren shows that the amount of naphthalene in the air in The Dalles in 2012 was 182 times greater than the peak naphthalene level in Columbus, Miss., between 1952 and 1999.
 

Data reported by Dahlgren shows that the amount of naphthalene in the air in The Dalles in 2012 was 182 times greater than the peak naphthalene level in Columbus, Miss., between 1952 and 1999. There were vast differences, however, in the methodologies behind the two data sets. The Dalles' measurement represents just a snapshot in time, not a historical peak. It was based on actual data collected by the company on two days in 2011 and 2012. The naphthalene level in Columbus, however, does represent a historical peak, based on computer modeling over 47 years from 1952 to 1999.

 

Railroad cross-ties treated with creosote are stored at the AmeriTies West plant as the Columbia River spills over The Dalles Dam.

A close look at the data collected by the company and the DEQ shows that the air in The Dalles has been posing an elevated health risk for a number of years. By 2017, naphthalene levels in The Dalles’ air had declined significantly and yet were as much as 82 times higher than a cancer benchmark adopted by the DEQ, based on a risk factor that the EPA established in 1998.

As for the non-cancer health effects of naphthalene, the DEQ’s data shows that levels were slightly lower than what several experts believe is an outdated EPA reference concentration. The EPA defines a “reference concentration” as the maximum concentration of the chemical that people can breathe without experiencing “deleterious” non-cancer health effects.

However, Dahlgren said he believes his studies in Columbus show that the EPA's reference concentration is too high. He said “deleterious” non-cancer health effects, such as those reported by people in The Dalles, can be caused by creosote pollution levels that are much lower than those measured by the DEQ.

"Chemical Genocide"

From 1999 to 2001, residents of Columbus, Miss., along with people living near creosote plants in Pennsylvania and Louisiana, filed a slew of lawsuits against the plants’ common owner, Kerr-McGee Corp., an oil, gas and chemical company based in Oklahoma City. The lawsuits alleged that exposure to creosote pollution caused a wide variety of health problems that were similar to symptoms reported by residents of The Dalles.

In 2002, Kerr-McGee settled the Columbus cases for $50 million, which went to 300 people who sought compensation for personal injuries and another 6,000 with property damage claims.

The Columbus victims alleged that Kerr-McGee had committed “chemical genocide,” according to Anita Gregory, spokeswoman for a group calling itself the Columbus Mississippi Creosote Claimants.

“My sisters are sterile and one of them died of cancer,” she said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder in 2009. As young girls they lived and played 50 feet from the entrance to the Kerr-McGee plant.

“My entire internal system was wrecked,” she said. “My sister and I cried the day we heard of the settlement. I remember the black silk water in our side yard and where we as children had to play. I suffered severely from undiagnosed illness. I asked my mother to let me die.”

 

“The chemicals caused birth defects, sterilized women and children and prevented birth of male children. The chemicals killed many people young and old. The killing of these people for economic profit and for the needs of the Kerr-McGee business is murder.” -- Anita Gregory

 

“The chemicals caused birth defects, sterilized women and children and prevented birth of male children,” she continued. “The chemicals killed many people young and old. The killing of these people for economic profit and for the needs of the Kerr-McGee business is murder.”

At the time, Kerr-McGee also owned the creosote plant in The Dalles, which it bought in 1987 and sold in January 2005, spinning it off to a new startup called AmeriTies West LLC. Kerr-McGee never owned the land under creosote plant in The Dalles. In the 1990s, the site was listed as a federal Superfund site and was cleaned up by the property owner, the Union Pacific Railroad.

 

A discarded railroad tie is found on the beach of the Columbia River at Riverfront Park in The Dalles, Ore. The site was remediated under the Superfund program in the 1990s by its owner,  Union Pacific Railroad.

At one point, court records show, Kerr-McGee manufactured about 40 percent of all railroad crossties made in America. By November 2005, when it spun off its remaining creosote plants to another start up company, which it called Tronox, Kerr-McGee was out of the railroad tie business altogether, but still possessed valuable oil and gas assets.

Kerr-McGee attached all of the environmental liabilities associated with its polluted creosote sites to Tronox, which it financed with an Initial Public Offering of stock after stripping it of all but $40 million -- an amount that represented just 25 percent of its annual environmental remediation costs, court records show.

In 2006, Kerr-McGee, thinking it was now free of environmental liabilities, sold its oil and gas business to Anadarko Petroleum Corporation for $18 billion. 

The 24,450 claims for personal injury and property damages that were still pending against Kerr-McGee became Tronox' problem, according to a court ruling, including another 2,690 claims from Columbus. With no money to pay these claims, the cash-starved Tronox filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and sued Anadarko.

At that point, the EPA joined Tronox in the litigation against Anadarko. The EPA sought $25 billion to cover unpaid expenses to clean up 2,772 former Kerr-McGee sites, claiming the company actions constituted an illegal effort to dodge its environmental responsibilities, and in particular its duty to cleanup numerous sites contaminated by its creosote operations. The bankruptcy court combined the EPA's case with the other claims against Kerr-McGee. The deeply complicated litigation also involved multiple frauds allegedly committed by Kerr-McGee executives, none of whom spent a single day in jail for their actions. Instead, a central player in the scheme, former Kerr-McGee CEO Luke Corbett, walked away with $60 million in stock price appreciation and options, a federal judge noted in a 2013 ruling.

In 2014, the EPA settled its claim for just $5.15 billion, or about 20 cents on the dollar.

“Had Kerr-McGee gotten away with its scheme, it would have skirted its responsibility for cleaning up contaminated sites around the country,” James Cole, a deputy US attorney general, said at the time.

The settlement provided $4.4 billion, enough to clean up just 49 sites, and another $600 million to settle the personal injury claims filed by people living near creosote plants. Tronox emerged from the bankruptcy in good shape and now is a player in the titanium metals business.

The health claims of Columbus residents were paid according to the following table made public by the court:

 

As part of the settlement, the court awarded the plaintiffs in Columbus another $12.5 million, which they later claimed was not enough to compensate them for all their injuries. They filed a motion for an additional $1.5 billion, which the court rejected.

The settlement in this case also provided compensation for other health problems. For example, victims in Mississippi could expect to receive payment of up to $1,500 for headache/dizziness, according to this letter to an unidentified claimant from the Garretson Group, a law firm handling disbursements:

 

After approving the settlement in 2014, the court issued an injunction that specifically bars anyone from bringing further claims against Kerr-McGee, including residents of The Dalles. 

However, the injunction says nothing that would prevent legal action against AmeriTies. A $20 million property damage lawsuit was filed against the company in 2016, but the suit makes no claims for health damages.

Not Giving Up Hope

In a sense, people injured by the wood treatment industry who live in Columbus, Miss., Avoca, Pa., and Bossier City, La., are the lucky ones because they received compensation while people who live elsewhere received nothing. Either they didn’t sue, as in The Dalles, or their pleas were rejected or thrown out of court, such as in Grenada, Miss. and Somerville, Texas.

Consider a case in Somerville against Koppers, the nation's largest producer of railroad crossties. The Houston Press reported that the plant had exposed people to “wildly elevated levels of arsenic, dioxins and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.”

More than 200 plaintiffs lost in court, according to this news article from 2008:

“Jurors in Fort Worth, Texas, on Feb. 11 rejected a cancer survivor’s claim that toxic chemicals from a Texas railroad tie plant where her husband worked caused the disease that required the removal of her stomach.”

“Linda Faust had sued BNSF Railway Co. for at least $6 million. She never worked at the Somerville, Texas, plant but said she got cancer after 15 years of washing her husband’s chemically-tainted clothes and boots.”

“Jurors made their decision in the five-week trial after more than two days of deliberations. BNSF attorneys had blamed Faust’s condition on her half-pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit and a bacterium that causes stomach ailments.”

“I think the verdict is wrong,” said Faust, who was not in court. “I know what (BNSF) did here.”

Dr. Dahlgren, who in court testimony had linked a wide array of illnesses to the plant in Somerville, told the newspaper,  “The situation in Somerville is a ­public-health emergency,”  Dahlgren says. “The government should be called in to investigate.”

Of course, the government never did investigate, and as he told Cascadia Times last week, tort cases against creosote plants are now extremely rare if not non-existent.

Dr. Dahlgren said lawyers “won’t touch” such cases anymore.

“Subsequent to this study we did in Mississippi, all the other cases have been thrown out of court,” he said. “Nobody will do these cases anymore in the United States. They cost millions of dollars to put together, and if you can’t settle them right away for tens of millions of dollars, at least, you lose your shirt.”

Still, the leaders of The Dalles Air Coalition are not ready to give up hope.

“For years we have been seeking help from the EPA, DEQ, OHA, politicians, lawyers and local non-profits and all have lead nowhere,” Najjar said. “The people of The Dalles feel hopeless, but we refuse to give up on justice being served for them. As mothers, it is our duty to protect our children and we won't stop until we are sure that they are safe.  We care about every life in The Dalles, including mother earth.”

Take Action

  • Attend the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission's regular meeting in The Dalles, May 10th, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., evening town hall 5 to 6:30 p.m., May 11th, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Ft. Dalles Readiness Center, 402 E. Scenic Drive. Here is the agenda.
  • Attend an open house in The Dalles hosted by ATSDR, DEQ, and the Oregon Health Authority, Tuesday, May 15, 6-8 p.m., Columbia Gorge Community College, 400 E. Scenic Drive. 

Paul Koberstein is Editor of Cascadia Times. Jessica Applegate is Managing Editor.

Paul Koberstein