By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Paul and Cheryl Anderson were sinking into their king-size bed late one night in the fall of 2004 when they heard a loud, ominous thump. Already jittery from the constant crank calls and anonymous hate mail, they immediately sprang to their feet.
Accompanied by a barking black Labrador, Paul Anderson barreled downstairs, flung open the screen door and shined a flashlight on a blood-soaked possum lying motionless on the porch with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in its skull. "From then on," the 41-year-old paralegal and published author of books on business and technology says, "I always answered the front door with a shotgun."
The Andersons lived in Woodwind Lakes, an immaculate upscale subdivision comprising 631 large brick houses tucked just inside Beltway 8 in northwest Houston. The lots sold fast when they hit the market about ten years ago, luring attorneys, oil and gas executives and other largely upper-middle-class professionals who compare the development's pine-shaded jogging trails and man-made lakes to the north suburban Woodlands -- only better-priced and located a mere 15 miles from downtown.
An unusually active social scene formed in Woodwind Lakes almost from its inception. Neighbors befriended neighbors at civic clubs, supper clubs, block parties and holiday open houses. The Andersons belonged to that world. Paul sat on the neighborhood security committee, Cheryl sipped wine with other wives at monthly bunco parties and their young son Kyle made loads of friends. The Andersons expected to live in Woodwind Lakes forever.
Then ugly rumors began to circulate. That a chunk of the subdivision had been built on a former oil and gas field. That deadly pollution from old sludge pits, burn pits and even an oil refinery lurked directly beneath their houses and yards. That the hill behind the neighborhood pavilion typically used for Easter egg hunts was a mound of once-contaminated soil, layers of which had been dumped in their backyards.
Many blamed Paul Anderson for spreading these stories. After all, he was the guy spending so much time researching the site's history, dredging up decades-old public documents, griping to the homeowners association and going door-to-door warning neighbors. Many believed he was on some sort of crusade to destroy Woodwind Lakes.
Today federal and state environmental investigations into Woodwind Lakes are ongoing, and part of the subdivision is being evaluated for the Superfund National Priority List of the country's most toxic abandoned waste sites. Cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene linked to former oil and gas activities have been proven to exist at elevated levels in the soil and groundwater. Last summer, 288 cubic yards of sludge-stained dirt was excavated from one family's backyard, leaving a hole the size of a big swimming pool where their infant children once played.
While there is no evidence of increased cancer rates in Woodwind Lakes, there have been numerous reports of pets contracting rare skin disorders and toxic waste residue bubbling to the surface of lawns and driveways after heavy rains.
Nobody can say for certain whether it is safe to live in Woodwind Lakes. During the mid-1990s, before most homes were built, the Railroad Commission of Texas oversaw a whitewashed investigation later deemed inadequate by its own senior toxicologist, Heidi Bojes, who joined the agency in 2001.
High-ranking public officials have admitted they would not risk moving with their own families into certain areas of Woodwind Lakes, even after repeatedly assuring residents that the contamination that has been found poses no threat to human health. "My personal opinion is, I would not put my children there," said Robert Musick, a 17-year-veteran geologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who is overseeing the Superfund assessment, in a recent deposition for one of several pending lawsuits related to Woodwind Lakes.
Most families moving into Woodwind Lakes received no disclosures whatsoever about the site's history. Paul Anderson found out before his neighbors, and figured they ought to know. He didn't count on them not wanting to know. For many homeowners, the issue was less about protecting health than protecting investments, and all his muckraking threatened to kill property values.
And so there began a vicious whispering campaign against the Andersons, as once-chummy relations among neighbors turned as toxic as the land under their homes. The talk shifted from environmental pollution to the Andersons' private lives. And no topic, regardless how blatantly untrue, was off-limits at parties and in e-mails circulated throughout Woodwind Lakes, a neighborhood some residents liken to a real-life Stepford, Peyton Place or Wisteria Lane.
Did you hear that Cheryl had to start working because Paul can't keep a job?
I heard their house is being foreclosed upon.
They must be having marital problems.
I heard Paul poured gasoline behind his yard then complained it was polluted.
Rumor has it Paul molested a handicapped kid.
I wouldn't be surprised.
The underlying message was clear: Paul Anderson must be stopped. Even if what he was saying was largely true.
In early 1997, Paul Anderson often drove through Woodwind Lakes to watch his family's dream house being built. But his excitement fizzled when construction crews uncovered an oil well in the front yard.
Anderson complained to Trendmaker Homes, which asked him to sign an agreement releasing the Houston-based luxury homebuilder from any liability. He says Trendmaker's representatives assured him the lot was clean: "They said it was construction debris."