Why are Shepherd residents becoming ill?

By Andy Cerota - Anchor/Reporter

SHEPHERD, Texas - Concern is growing for neighbors in a small Texas town north of Houston. They claim they're suffering from the same mysterious symptoms and they believe some nearby chemical equipment is to blame.

"You're heart starts racing real fast", said Connie Dean.

Good health isn't something Dean, her husband, Thomas, and their neighbor, Samantha Keith, take for granted.

"Shortness of breath, headaches, bad headaches," said Thomas Dean.

"The room kind of moved. My vision kind of moved like that and I just fell," said Samantha Keith.

The three Shepherd residents said this is no coincidence. In fact, these neighbors are convinced the source of their health problems lies just beyond a fence from something that's practically in their back yards. It's a "tank battery station," owned and operated by Famcor Oil. The collection of equipment is used to separate, treat, store and transfer crude oil and natural gas.

The Deans said it was built about 10 years ago and is behind their subdivision outside Shepherd in San Jacinto County.

"You can hear it. It'll blow and start spewing and then a few minutes later I start getting dizzy and want to pass out," said Thomas Dean. 

He claims his symptoms began about eight years ago, shortly before he suffered a heart attack. He claims his health has been slowly deteriorating ever since.

Connie Dean she started to feel sick a couple of years ago. So did Keith. Both women admit doctors couldn't find anything wrong with them.

"These doctors probably think I'm a hypochondriac and that I'm making this up, and I am just the opposite," said Keith.

In October, the Deans, the Keiths and several other residents sued Famcor, claiming that toxic vapors and gases released from the facility were jeopardizing their health. The Deans also filed two complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

"We made sure we covered the entire area," said Heather Feldman, the regional TCEQ director in Beaumont.

The TCEQ said since February, its investigators have been to the Shepherd neighborhood at least four times to test the air for certain contaminants. Two of those visits were in September, on the 17th and 19th.

"Did your handheld monitors detect any levels at all?"KPRC Local 2's Andy Cerota asked.

"No, sir, not during these investigations," replied Feldman.

"Nothing? Zero?" Cerota asked.

"Correct," said Feldman.

In fact, the TCEQ said Famcor recently added additional emissions control devices that go above and beyond what the company is legally required to do. But eight days later, on Sept. 27, a spokesperson with the Texas Railroad Commission told Local 2 that investigators found "a small leak of natural gas tank vapors from three storage tank hatches."

When investigators returned on Oct. 9, the violations had been corrected.

"What else could it be from? It makes no sense!" said Keith.

But the case is not closed. The investigation continues.

This whole experience has left the residents frustrated and hopeless.

"You move to the country. You don't think you have any problems," said Connie Dean.

"I would like to see them shut it down until we get something done and figure it out," said Thomas Dean.

In a written statement, a Famcor representative told Local 2, in part, "We have seen no documentation related to the claims being leveled against us. We have not had a reportable spill over the 10-year life of the facility and we consistently meet Texas Commission on Environmental Quality air quality standards."

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