Guardian Angel - Or Grinch?

Dear tenants: If you must stay, better hold your breath!

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."

A fax from Helmsley-Spear management to The Insider noted that the TNRCC has granted Memorial Hills an innocent owner certificate absolving it of any responsibility for the pollution.

"As best we know," stated the fax, "we have disclosed information concerning the contamination in notices to our tenants."

Curiously, the management of Memorial Hills seemed to actually welcome news coverage of the pollution threat in the area. "And when did you say your story is going to run?" a leasing office employee cheerfully asked.

TNRCC spokesman Dick Lewis is more than a bit dubious about the intent of the management letter to the tenants. He claims the agency did a thorough assessment of the pollution risk, and notes that the lab analysis does not back up Helmsley-Spear's warnings.

"That's the reason I wonder about the motives," says Lewis. "If I owned an apartment complex and I wrote a letter stating if you live here you're going to get very ill or die, well, that's a quick way to empty out the property."

Rotary Disconnection

The Insider reported recently about a mangled testimonial letter by President-elect George W. Bush in a program for the recent Lombardi Award dinner program in Houston ("Get Thee to a Spellchecker," December 21). The item drew a heartfelt mea culpa from Rotary Club of Houston Executive Vice President Tom Troegel. He explains regretfully that it was his own volunteers who did the misspellings and grammatical mistakes as they transcribed Shrub's paean to those beefy college football linemen nominated for the trophy.

"As you can well imagine," writes Troegel, "we are embarrassed by these circumstances. I can assure you that I will do everything possible to make sure that mistakes of this kind do not happen again.

"I am sure that all Rotarians in the 30 clubs in the city, and beyond, are embarrassed by our club's mistake. Further, we apologize to those individuals working on the staff of president-elect Bush, the president-elect, and all Rotarians for not living up to our high standards and having caused them undue criticism from this mistake."

We remain mystified why those allegedly sloppy Rotary volunteers produced impeccable versions of the program testimonials from President Bill Clinton and Mayor Lee Brown, but butchered the Bush letter. Perhaps the good Rotarians can institute remedial English classes for the membership in the near future.

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