Toxic Town: Contamination in Somerville Schools

Last Monday, I trekked back up to Somerville, Texas, set just past Brenham along US Highway 290 some 90 miles northwest of Houston. My editor sent me to do some reporting for this week’s news story on recent environmental testing in the schools. I wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms.

I’ve written extensively on the small rural town, population 1,700. Hundreds of residents there are suing a massive wood-treatment facility that was once the nation’s largest for polluting the town for decades with all kinds of horrible toxic chemicals that may have caused a range of deadly, aggressive cancers and rare birth defects.

Dr. James Dahlgren, a health expert hired by the plaintiff attorneys who treated rescue workers at the World Trade Center site and served as lead toxicologist in the famous Erin Brockovich case, says the entire town should be evacuated immediately.

That includes the public schools and its 525 students.

Charles Camarillo, the superintendent of Somerville Independent School District, called for “independent testing” of the schools and hired environmental scientists from Texas A&M University to go inside the buildings and collect some dust samples.

The A&M results were packaged in a final report dated February 22. But Camarillo didn’t release it to the public for another two weeks, after a reporter filed a public-information request.

In the meantime, Camarillo issued a signed press release saying that “our schools appear to be safe” and that he is “happy that the report showed that our school environment is largely free from dangerous levels of toxins.”

Great news, right? Except that the A&M report didn’t say that. In fact, the report shows numerous dust samples taken from both the attics and floors in the elementary and junior high schools containing known cancer-causing chemicals such as arsenic and dioxin at levels higher even than those found at the World Trade Center site.

Oh, and the lead author of the report, Dr. Kirby Donnelly, head of A&M’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, told me that Camarillo did not invite him or his colleagues to a February 26 press conference held to discuss the report at the superintendent’s office. But a representative for the owners of the chemical plant did attend and assured reporters that the schools were harmless.

Donnelly has advised Camarillo to remediate the attics in all the school buildings and then conduct more testing. But Camarillo has made no mention of this in his public statements.

I emailed Camarillo requesting an interview along with a list of questions, but he responded that he is “not granting anyone any interviews” and did not respond to the questions.

So last week I rode up to Somerville to speak with some parents, students and teachers about the new A&M report.

Parents complained to me that the school district was being secretive and they didn’t know what was going on. Students told me they were freaked out and scared about their health. And teachers, who insisted on not being named in our story fearing retribution, said they, too, were frightened and looking to leave the district or retire.

The next day, one of my sources called and told me that Jaime Velasco, principal of Somerville Elementary, had circulated a memo about me to teachers and staff. It read:

“Please be on the lookout for a Gray Chrysler with a partial license plate of 925. A man with the following description was seen at the high school/jr. high school taking pictures of the students…He went up to a female student, took her picture, and asked where the elementary was. Please be extra vigilant this afternoon.”

Huh?

I never stepped foot on school property. I immediately introduced myself to everyone I spoke with as a Houston Press reporter. And the female student referred to in the memo was Herbchelle Plumber – a sixth grader who approached me after recognizing me as the reporter who recently spent an hour at her family’s home. Nearly all of Herbchelle’s seven siblings suffer from developmental problems and neurological disorders that may be linked to toxic emissions from the plant.

Velasco sent his memo at about 2:40 p.m., when I was outside the elementary school talking with parents as they waited in their cars to pick up their kids. It was also at about that time that I saw Camarillo drive up in his pickup truck and asked him several questions. Camarillo knows me. Late last year, when he was still granting interviews, I spoke with the superintendent for more than an hour inside his office.

My source eventually sent me a copy of the Velasco memo. “The staff thought it was a child molester,” he told me. I passed it on to my editor, Margaret Downing, who sent a memo of her own to Velasco and Camarillo. She wrote:

“The impression you have created is that Todd is some kind of stalker or worse, which certainly leaves him open to possible attack by a concerned citizen misled by your note or possible police arrest for the same reason if he should return to Somerville.

“Todd was not on school property; he did nothing improper let alone illegal.

“I am wondering why a principal, a supposed role model and community leader, who knew perfectly well why our reporter was there, would resort to what appears to be an underhanded attack on Todd, and one that could do him serious injury.”

The next day, Camarillo wrote back defending his principal’s actions, referring to me as “a suspicious stranger loitering near our schools” and asking for an apology. He cited the Texas Education Code saying it’s a Class C misdemeanor “for a person on school property or on public property within 500 feet to entice or attempt to entice a student away from a class or other school activity that the student is required to attend.”

Our attorneys say Camarillo has misinterpreted the law.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided if Camarillo had communicated openly and truthfully to the public about a report funded by public money on an issue that may in fact be a public-health emergency. –Todd Spivak

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