Suffering on the San Jacinto: 11 voices

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David Marlow, loving husband, devoted father, is dead.

His 39-year life cut short by a rare form of blood cancer known as Multiple Myeloma.

David's widow, Candice, believes it should never have happened and blames lethal contamination from the couple's nearby neighbor—a toxic dump known as the San Jacinto River Waste Pits.

"He was angry he wasn't given the time to see his children grow up, to watch them graduate. That's all he wanted was the time to be there, to be there for us, to help raise his babies," said Candice.

It all began harmlessly enough with the making of bright, white paper.

In the process of achieving luster and luminosity, manufacturers on Houston's ship channel generated a by-product molecule known as Dioxin–a cancer-causing compound now considered among the world's most deadly.

During the mid-1960's, waste material from a Pasadena mill quickly piled up. The "toxic sludge" was floated a few miles up-river, dumped into open pits along the banks and ultimately, forgotten.

Back in the 1970's Sam Braun spent countless hours skiing, swimming and fishing in the waters directly across from the waste pits. Eleven years ago when he was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, the source of his sickness was mostly a mystery.

But then the waste pits were rediscovered and Sam Braun believes, so was the cause of his ultra-rare cancer.

"Let’s not spare a dime. Let’s get this stuff out of here because it's just going to continue to hurt people," said Braun who is suffered through two bone marrow transplants.

Sisters Harvie Sasser and Tony Bell grew up on Pin Oak Road in Highlands.

They say you can match every mailbox on their street with at least one case of cancer.

"We all swam in the river. We fished, crabbed everything," said Bell.

Both women are survivors who blame escaped Dioxin from the pits for the ongoing illness that has crippled their lives and ended many others.

"I didn't ask for cancer and liver problems, kidney disease and liver disease and colon disease. I didn't ask for any of that, but I got it and a lot of neighbors and friends got it too," said Bell.

"They are dropping off like flies. Cancer here, cancer there," said Sasser of neighbors in her community.

"We just don't want these children to go through what we went through. I mean we are losing people. We go to a funeral at least once or twice a month. That's not fair," said Bell.

Houston based Waste Management and International Paper are the companies legally responsible for the Dioxin.

Since rediscovery of the pits in 2005 both companies have claimed very little of the half-billion pounds of toxic material has escaped.

Facing a potential cleanup bill of more than $100 million, the companies assured residents that installation of an "armored cap" would secure the waste in place and prevent future release.

"I lived on this road and I watched them cover this thing up. That ain't no more than me putting a band-aid on and taking a shower. The band-aid came off. They didn't contain it. They just covered it up with plastic and put rocks on it," said Doyce Bobo, a longtime resident who is suffering from cancer.
Doyce's wife Rea also has the disease.

"There's like five or six people within a half mile of my house that have cancer. They are either dead or have cancer now," said Rae Bobo.

While investigators have yet to definitively link illness in the area to Dioxin from the pits, in the summer of 2015 residents received the first hard indicator, when state scientists identified alarming "cancer clusters" in East Harris County communities along the San Jacinto.

"It was something that we knew in our hearts," said Marlow of the report.

"I think it's injured people. I think people are sick from it. I think people have died from it," added Greg Moss, a longtime resident.

Particularly frightening are elevated cancer rates among children - Lymphoma, Retinoblastoma, Melanoma and Glioma.

It is a dangerous rap sheet of disease striking the young at greater than expected levels.

One of those kids is Chris Maxwell who was diagnosed with a rare and often deadly brain tumor not long after birth.

"I'm hoping it goes away for a very long time so no one else has it," said Maxwell, one of two children in his elementary school class with a rare cancer.

Maxwell's Grandmother Cheryl Beebe says the cancer clusters are no coincidence.

"Everybody you talk to has some kind of disease - cancer, Lupus, something and that just doesn't happen. People are afraid, very, very afraid especially people who have lost somebody. They are heartbroken," said Beebe.

Heartbreak and concern which have only intensified over the past 13 months with the discovery of enormous holes in the dump's armored cap and trace amounts of Dioxin in multiple water wells.

Billy and Gloria O'Bannon say friends will no longer swim in their pool. It's a predicament which could prove the very least of their problems.

"Would they like to buy my house? Would they like to live out here and drink the water and swim in the pool? How would their life be if they were in our shoes?" said Billy of the responsible parties and regulators.

"I have a 22-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter.  Is their future going to be impacted by this later on? Is my daughter going to be able to have children?" said Gloria.

They are voices of despair leveled squarely at the EPA, an agency receiving far less poignant pleas from those who want the waste kept right where it is. They are powerful forces who insist the Dioxin is simply too dangerous to disturb.

What neither side disputes is the sheer longevity of the compound's toxic nature and the critical question that demands: Where best to secure a lethal, manmade mess that will remain deadly for the next seven centuries?

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