A few years ago, Robert Morris started having nightmares about his time at Technicoat. He dreamed about the vast pits in which he used to dump chemical waste, creating a toxic stew that he and his co-workers would then cover over with dirt.
“I was looking at this big, black, murky pit and thinking, ‘You don’t want to get in that stuff, it’ll kill you,’” he said.
Those dreams may come uncomfortably close to the truth. Around the time he started having the recurring nightmares, he also began feeling ill. For the last several years, his health has spiraled downward. He suffers from a staggering number of ailments that, according to his physician, Kapil Sharma of the University of Texas Southwest Medical Center at Dallas, may all be related to his tenure at Technicoat. Fort Worth Weekly was unable to contact Dr. Sharma for this story.
Morris was diagnosed in 2011 with peripheral neuropathy — that is, damage to the nervous system outside the brain and spinal cord. Various studies, including a 2007 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, have linked the disorder to the carcinogenic solvent trichlorethylene. The Environmental Protection Agency found large amounts of the chemical in its 1999 study of the soil and water at the old plant site.
The chemical compound also causes liver and kidney damage. Morris has holes in his liver and one of his kidneys that doctors attribute to the corrosive chemicals. The organs, one doctor told him, will eventually fail.
His toxicologist told him that he has so much barium in his blood, Morris said, that he is in the top 17 percent of people who have tested positive for it. Barium is considered poisonous at high levels and has been known to cause everything from anxiety to paralysis.
The various reports on the contaminated soil from the Technicoat site read like a diary of Morris’ work there from 1973 to ’78.
Take trichlorethylene. Morris remem-bers occasions when his former manager’s actions narrowly kept the chemical from asphyxiating workers.
“There were a few times [when] the plant manager John Renfrow would run past me like a crazed Indian yelling, ‘Get down, get down,’” Morris said. “I’d turn around and look and see steam pouring out over [the top of] this trichlorethylene tank, and he was crawling on his hands and knees through mud and stuff to turn on this cold water faucet that you’re supposed to run at all times when you’re using this tank. Stuff would boil out of there like a big vapor.”
Had Renfrow not have turned the cold water on, “it would have asphyxiated everybody,” Morris said.
“You’d have a real bad ‘drunk’ headache for 30 to 40 minutes” after the boil-over, he said. “I would be 15 or 20 feet away from the vat at those times.”
He recalled using the solvent methylethylketone, or MEK, for up to three times longer than OSHA standards permitted.
“We would work with MEK … to clean [airplane] parts in five-gallon buckets, for two to three hours at a time, six days a week,” he said. “So in a work day you would probably work with MEK for six to eight hours depending on your work shift.”
The chemical base sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, aroused particularly strong emotions in Morris.
“This was the chemical we used to etch highway signs for the [Texas] Transportation Department,” he said. “The fumes and ash would settle on anything close by. We would look as though we had aged — our hair would turn white with residue. And when you would wash it out, it would smell of rotten eggs.”
The same story goes for many of the other dozens of chemicals the EPA found on or near the site. Morris remembers how he came into contact with them. And he now worries about what those chemicals are doing to his health.
The two-acre Technicoat property is part of a larger parcel whose industrial use dates back to World War II. In 1943, the Defense Plant Corporation built a factory there at the request of the U.S. government to manufacture chemical catalysts used in bombs.
American Cyanamid bought the plant in 1946 and sold one of the property’s two factories to Jean Smyers, who started Southern Anodizing in the early 1960s. Smyers sold the coatings plan to Felton Havins Sr. in 1971, and he continued to operate the facility as Technicoat until April 1990. The city bought the land from Technicoat in November 2001.
Throughout the coating plant’s 40 years of operation, it drew complaints about pollution.
The Texas Water Commission began monitoring the site in 1970. In 1991 it levied the $158,880 fine against Technicoat for multiple violations of Texas’ environmental standards. A 1991 document notes that high levels of several dangerous chemicals were detected there, including cadmium and chromium, carcinogens linked to breast, lung, and prostate cancers.
TCEQ created an action plan to clean up the property in the early ’90s. All of the property’s subsequent owners have been saddled with the responsibility of continuing that cleanup and monitoring the pollution levels of surrounding soil and water.
When the city bought the property, terms of the sale included a requirement that the city pay off the remaining $45,000 of the Technicoat fine.
The city entered the site into TCEQ’s voluntary cleanup program, with the goal of making the surrounding areas safe for residential use. The Technicoat site itself cannot be redeveloped.
The city hired a company to remove 40,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil as well as underground tanks. Price tag for the “dig and haul” work: more than $3 million. Water wells on the property were also plugged, except for two used for testing, since TCEQ had ruled any groundwater below the site was unusable.
Once the rubber mat was installed to cover the soil and the site was paved, TCEQ deemed it safe.
In 2007 the site was sold to Fort Worth Cats former owner Carl Bell. TCEQ continued to monitor the site and take soil and water samples. Three years later, Bell sold 42 acres to the Tarrant Regional Water District, including the old Technicoat site.
When the district ratcheted up work on the Trinity River Vision project in 2011, further cleanup of the Technicoat site was its first major environmental chore. The state required the water district to remove remaining chromium and chlorinated solvent pollutants. The water district still is required to monitor the surrounding soil and water for contaminants.
Frossard said samples show that there are still trace amounts of chemicals on and around the site. But levels are now low enough that TCEQ is satisfied that “natural attenuation” will take care of the problem.
“The chemical levels are so low that they will naturally go away,” he said. “They are not of a level that the state was concerned.
“Removing the aboveground tanks and belowground storage removed the source,” he said. “Once they did the digging around the area, it removed most of the remaining material that was left that could migrate.”
By TCEQ standards, the Technicoat/ American Cyanamid site is no longer an environmental threat, as long as it remains a parking lot and is never again disturbed.