By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
As holiday greetings go, it wasn't your typical "'Tis the season to be jolly" card. Memorial Hills Apartments management notified its renters a week before Christmas that living at the complex could enhance the occupants' long-term chances of contracting cancer. Just to make sure they got the message, the residents had to sign for the notices.
"The purpose of this notice is to bring you up to date on the status of contamination originating from the adjacent property," began the missive. It went to all tenants of the 100-unit complex just north of Memorial Drive between Waugh and Shepherd.
The notice explained that state environmental officials had issued a finding that the threat from cancer-causing chlorinated hydrocarbons at an abandoned industrial site behind the apartments was within "the acceptable cancer risk range specified by the EPA."
But before hallelujahs could resound from relieved residents, Helmsley-Spear Management went on to point out that the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission had issued the report based on data submitted by the owner of the polluted site, Massachusetts-based Thermo Electron Corporation. The apartment owners, including New York City's hard-hearted hotel maven and convicted tax evader Leona Helmsley, then hired their own consultants. Their report concluded that contrary to the TNRCC finding, the data "reveals a potential long-term health risk" that exceeds Texas and federal standards.
Ominously the notice concluded, "Only each resident can decide whether or not they wish to remain residents of the Memorial Hills Apartments we cannot tell you whether or not it is safe for you and your family to continue to live in Memorial Hills."
It may have been a first. In effect, management warned tenants that through no fault of its own, living in the apartments could be hazardous to the occupants' health.
Inexplicably, a large banner declaring "NOW LEASING" is still draped across the front of the complex. Perhaps they should have appended a surgeon general's warning just to be safe.
Not surprisingly, after the notices went out, several long-term Memorial Hills residents reacted by immediately making plans to skedaddle. A middle-aged woman who asked for anonymity says she saw leaking drums of chemicals behind the apartments, but thought nothing of it when she moved in four years ago.
"People are moving out right and left," she commented, gesturing inside the complex gates to a U-Haul truck loaded with furniture. "After reading the letter, you don't know whether to fear for your life."
Several tenants professed to be unconcerned. "I read the notice, but I plan to stay through my lease," commented Oleg Suliga. A woman whose fiancé has lived at the apartments for four years shrugged off the warning as "a courtesy letter" that wouldn't change her plans to live there.
A tenant who had just visited the manager's office to give his notice paused to consider whether the pollution danger was real -- or simply a ploy to get the remaining tenants to move out so the property could be sold.
"I work as a nurse," he said, "so I take the health threat seriously. It's perfectly feasible. But opinion around here is divided about 50-50 whether the threat is bogus."
The 38-year-old complex is located in an area of feverish land speculation brought on by the recent development of posh town homes and apartments to the east along Waugh and Studemont. Occupants of Memorial Hills pay rents ranging from $615 for a one-bedroom apartment to $765 for a two-bedroom -- peanuts compared to the new residential developments. Even the Thermo Electron property behind the complex is studded with For Sale billboards.
The same resident notes that there has been a steady increase in the number of unoccupied apartments at the complex over the last few months. He says management has seemed uninterested in keeping tenants whose leases have expired.
"They could just tell us all to leave, but the way I figure it they are laying the groundwork for a lawsuit seeking damages from the polluter. Like, "Look at all the business we've lost.' "
Actually, the Memorial hills owners already filed a lawsuit, in state district court in late 1999. It pits Helmsley-Spear against the $4 billion Thermo Electron Corporation's subsidiary Metallurgical Services Inc. and eight other defendants who operated facilities at the location.
Although the property at 411 Jackson Hill is now a vacant lot, as recently as 1993 it hosted a metal treatment facility that included a concrete-lined "quench pit" of carcinogenic toxic wastes. Court documents indicate one witness observed dead animals floating in the hydrocarbon-skinned muck of the pit. Thermo Electron demolished the structures and had the pit removed in 1993, and two years later hauled away 2,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil.
In the suit the apartment owners claim that toxic chemicals flowed downhill from the polluted site and under Memorial Hills, where polluted groundwater created a carcinogenic vapor hazard inside the apartments. The suit alleges negligence and trespass, and asks unspecified damages for the restoration and cleanup of the apartment property.
Helmsley-Spear also alleged that the pollution has diminished the worth of its property through "negative market value" and "stigma." The plaintiff reserved the right to seek further damages when "the full impact of the consequences of the contamination are determined."