Rick Kornele and Charles Rayburn fished and crabbed as small boys on a sand bar near a popular boat ramp on the San Jacinto River — a site today blocked off by an imposing chain-link fence that’s plastered with warning signs in three languages.
The Houston Chronicle reports Rayburn remembers walking barefoot along the sand and wading into the murky water to catch crabs. Kornele’s family often drove to the water’s edge in a station wagon and spent days long lazy days camping in the shadow of the highway bridge.
As adults, both fished, boated and bought land near the river they loved. It wasn’t until 2005 that both men separately discovered that their favorite 1960s childhood fishing hole sat next to hidden pits where a Pasadena paper mill and its partners had deposited sludge laced with cancer-causing dioxins and PCBs.
The pair met for the very first time late last year in a lawyer’s office in downtown Houston, united by the crushing belief that their life-long love for the river and its fish may be killing them. Rayburn, 57, and Kornele, 58, have both been diagnosed with cancer.
Kornele has seen his strength sapped from a lengthy battle with stage IV lymphoma. Rayburn, who married a local girl, got a job in the plants and stayed in Highlands, has seen his face ravaged and rebuilt in a fight against salivary gland cancer. They are among 100 people whose claims that they were sickened after a lifetime of consuming toxic seafood from the fouled San Jacinto River are expected to take center stage in a legal showdown that pits residents and property owners mostly from Channelview, Highlands, Baytown and Houston against the companies that inherited the dioxin and PCB-tainted dumping grounds.
In all, more than 600 people are part of the ongoing legal dispute in Harris County. Filed in 2012, the case has grown into one of the largest environmental class action lawsuits in Texas history, according to county leaders and Richard Mithoff, the civil lawyer who is representing the plaintiffs in their fight to hold the current business owners accountable for their losses. They include home and business owners along the river.
In the next few months as part of the civil lawsuit, about 39 of the 600 plaintiffs — Kornele, Rayburn and others selected as the “lead cases” — will be asked to provide proof about how either their health, property or livelihood specifically was damaged by contact with polluted waters and fish. Each family will be asked to reveal detailed medical and personal information so that ultimately a Harris County judge can determine whether their waste pit case proceeds — or dies.
“We believe there will be testimony from those who have lived there and have fished in the river and engaged in recreational sports such as swimming and water skiing and who have eaten the fish and who we believe the evidence will show have been very seriously harmed,” Mithoff said.
This is the third of three San Jacinto waste pits lawsuits to have been filed in Harris County civil district courts. But it is the first suit filed on behalf of residents who in many cases lived their entire lives along the river or owned businesses along its banks. Many argue their health was compromised by unknowingly eating toxic fish, while others are focused on the damages to their property values from the contamination.
“This case is about the handling and storage of waste — waste that we think includes components like dioxin and various PCBs that are very, very harmful to health and in some cases have caused cancers that are fatal,” Mithoff said. “The focus of the trial will be on who had that responsibility and in what period of time and what could have been done differently.”
The companies being sued in this case, International Paper, McGinnes Industrial and Waste Management Inc., are not the original owners of either the paper mill or of the waste pits but their successors. In court filings, the corporate defendants have argued that they inherited a historic pollution problem created in the 1960s that only 40 years later became Texas’ most notorious Superfund site.
Attorneys acting for those companies have blamed the government for failing to act more quickly to protect public health and have asked for the case to be dismissed. None responded to requests for comment.
State health workers first discovered poisoned fish in the San Jacinto River in 1990 near what is now Interstate 10. Over two decades, the state’s fishing warning and ban areas grew by 2013 to swallow up the entire lower stretch of the San Jacinto River from the Lake Houston dam to where the river, which flows into the Houston Ship Channel, empties into Galveston Bay. Today the waste pit sites are marked with buoys visible to motorists passing on the I-10 East Freeway bridge — yet people still fish and boat nearby.
Central to the case is just how much the poisons leached into the fish and the water and how they harmed people who spent their lives as river folk frequenting the river’s beaches, marinas and piers. Many like Rayburn and Kornele were avid boaters who spent carefree years regularly catching and eating the river’s fish, now banned as too dangerous for consumption by pregnant women and children under 12.
Long before he knew of the dangers, Kornele settled in Channelview and eventually opened a bait shop to serve local anglers. In 1994, he and his wife, Rebecca, sunk their retirement savings into the Lazy R&R bait shop on a busy road just minutes from the river and the Lake Houston dam. The couple’s business expanded into a wholesale retail operation that supplied bait all around the river.
Then, in 2007, Rick suffered a grand mal seizure. He was rushed to the hospital and quickly diagnosed with lymphoma. “All he did was fish on that river and we thought we could retire there. That’s not going to happen,” said his wife. They sold the shop. These days, they spend much of their time driving to treatments and to doctor’s appointments.
Despite the notorious waste pits — and two other Superfund sites on the banks upstream — the river remains home to surprisingly popular county parks, public and private marinas and beaches as well as the San Jacinto Monument and State Historic Park.
Fishermen can still be spotted along its banks on sunny days — despite warning signs placed on public access sites by the Galveston Bay Foundation. Along with the ban for pregnant women and children, everyone else is warned to limit consumption to a single meal per month.
It irks easygoing Kornele on his frequent drives to Houston hospitals to spot anglers standing near those warning signs, which are often vandalized and stolen. He thinks the wording should be stronger and signs should be posted at all marinas — public and private.
“I think that other people should be warned,” Kornele said in a rush of emotion. “I think the signs should say no fishing or catch and release only. On the way here today I saw people fishing and crabbing on the river. They need to heed the warning.”