Gas Man

For 14 years David Rosenfield has been fighting with the service station next door. He just dug up his backyard in search of contamination. He found it.

He hates the gas station. That is the first thing that must be understood. It is not merely a nuisance, or a minor annoyance. To use those words would be to smooth over the raging injustice that has infected every day of David Rosenfield's life for the past 14 years, ever since he bought the modest three-bedroom, two-bath house on Dunlap Street. Ever since his life became a homeowner's hell.

The one-story house in southwest Houston sits just feet away from a Shell gas station. The gas station is a large white modern structure with eight pumps, a convenience store, a mechanic's shop and a car wash. Shell has assigned bright signs in red, yellow and blue to each of these pieces: Food Mart, Car Wash, Service Center.

If Playskool made a gas station, it would look like this Shell.

Deron Neblett

David Rosenfield surveys his ruined backyard. The barrels hold contaminated soil.
Deron Neblett
David Rosenfield surveys his ruined backyard. The barrels hold contaminated soil.

But do not be fooled. Because as innocuous as it appears, it is this gas station, this building, this thing, that has turned 44-year-old David Rosenfield into a Job of modern times.

At least, this is how he tells it.

And oh, how he tells it, storming around his yard, barking a timeline of unjust acts against him that began almost as soon as he moved into the house in 1989. By his conservative estimate, Rosenfield has spent about $30,000 of his own money and 1,000 hours of his time to hire lawyers, engineers, high-tech drilling equipment and an environmental consulting firm to document the onslaught of environmental violations against his homestead. Claiming his property is now worthless, he's filed a lawsuit against Shell and its affiliates, as well as the franchisee of the station, asking for around $600,000 so he can get the hell out of this place.

And what are the abuses he has endured? Rosenfield is more than ready to describe them -- often, at length and in aching detail. The gas station's car wash, built in 1998, is so loud it violates city noise ordinances, and it keeps him and his 23-year-old El Salvadoran wife, Sonia, from sleeping in their master bedroom at night. Shell has allowed wasted detergent from the car wash to swim out of the gas station and into his gutters. During the flood of 1992, when the banks of a nearby bayou overflowed, the rushing waters carried gallons of used engine oil away from the gas station until they spilled all over Rosenfield's lawn. According to Rosenfield, the gas station employees had not properly secured the lids of the used oil drums.

"They were gas station monkeys," he spits. "We call 'em grease monkeys."

But it is the latest, most serious blow that has Rosenfield more upset than ever. When a close friend who had once worked with leaking underground storage tanks suggested that Rosenfield might want to test for contamination of his groundwater and soil, Rosenfield agreed and quickly had seven small trees and some bushes in his backyard chopped down so that a consulting firm could drill his land. When an initial sampling of his property revealed high levels of such contaminants as benzene, Rosenfield decided to gain publicity for his cause by calling a press conference for local television and newspaper reporters -- complete with McDonald's hamburgers.

Mediation finally has been set for the end of this month. But Rosenfield doesn't think he'll get the money he's asking for. He won't be surprised if he has to go to trial, he says. But it's easy to think that a trial is the only place a fight like this belongs. Mediation would almost be too easy, too simple. If Rosenfield is indeed fighting a war, as he describes it, there should be a final battle, not a quiet surrender.

As Rosenfield relates his story while standing on his front lawn, an automobile lumbers through the car wash just steps away. As the hissing, grating noises begin to build, Rosenfield cringes and utters, "Oh, my God." He looks to his left, in the direction of the enemy.

"One thing I want to stress is that Shell wants you to think they're ecologically and environmentally friendly," he says. "They plant pansies, flowers. But these bastards -- excuse my language -- have been polluting me since I bought this house."


Rosenfield is leaning over the ground in his backyard, handling clumps of dried earth. They are pieces of core samples from the recent drilling performed by Bandy & Associates, the firm he hired to check his ground for contamination.

"Do you smell the gasoline?" he yelps, thrusting a piece of the sample under the nose of a visitor. The scent is faint, but definitely there.

Rosenfield, who enjoys using his loud, gravelly voice, is "a fourth-generation Houstonian, and proud of it." The descendant of Ukrainian immigrants who came to Houston through Galveston, he runs his own business buying and selling vintage motorcycles and cars. In what was perhaps an optimistic move, he named his dog Lucky. He met his wife five years ago while traveling in El Salvador. They've been married for about a year.

"She doesn't understand the laws in this country," he says. "She thinks if you sue someone they come and kill you."

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