By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
The RRC never bothered to inform the TCEQ that the area was no longer used for heavy industry. "We did not know it was a residential community," Musick says, explaining the TCEQ's sluggish response.
If the site qualifies for the Superfund program, federal and state dollars may be used to conduct a comprehensive environmental investigation and cleanup. But it would also wreak havoc on the rest of Woodwind Lakes.
Bombarded by anxiety-ridden e-mails, letters and phone calls, Musick is well-aware of the enmity that exists among residents. Still, he was shocked that only 16 of the 32 homeowners granted him access to their properties for testing. "That freaks me out," Musick says, "that people would not want to know."
Dozens of tests have already been conducted in Woodwind Lakes during the last several years. The RRC arm-twisted ChevronTexaco and Amerada Hess into sampling soil and groundwater on selected properties. Some homeowners have paid tens of thousands of dollars to local independent consulting firm Trinity Environmental in an attempt to find out whether their homes are safe. (See "Danger: Baby on Board").
There is no question that elevated levels of hazardous contaminants exist in the soil and groundwater from past oil and gas activities, though it remains unknown whether residents are being exposed to them.
In sum, all the testing has resolved nothing. Instead, it has produced reams of conflicting scientific data -- and varying interpretations of the same data -- that have only bred mistrust and sharply divided the community.
Environmental investigations into residential areas like the ones in Woodwind Lakes tend to devastate neighborhoods long before any final analysis is made regarding health risks. Similar reports of homeowners assailing one another over issues of safety versus property values surfaced in the early years leading up to the Love Canal Superfund in Niagara Falls in the 1970s and the Brio Superfund in southeast Harris County in the 1980s.
It's too early to tell how the contamination in Woodwind Lakes compares to Love Canal and Brio, where high rates of cancer and birth defects led to unprecedented settlements totaling hundreds of millions of dollars. But the hostilities expressed against Paul and Cheryl Anderson -- which resulted in the Andersons' successfully suing another homeowner for slander -- offer a uniquely revealing look at the extent neighbors will go to preserve property values despite inherent risks.
Elected officials in Woodwind Lakes -- led by Ray Merola, president of Harris County Municipal Utility District #261, which serves the subdivision -- even went so far as to aggressively lobby top brass at the Harris County Appraisal District -- including board chairman Glenn Peters, chief appraiser Jim Robinson and senior appraiser Con McCleester -- to sue Paul and Cheryl Anderson in the summer of 2005 for getting their home appraisal reduced based on the ongoing environmental investigations, according to internal e-mails obtained by the Houston Press.
HCAD singled out the Andersons, using them as an example to deter other residents from similarly appealing their property valuations (See "County Gofers").
HCAD squandered $8,078 in taxpayer money on legal fees before dropping the suit earlier this year. The difference in property taxes owed between the market and appraised values for the Andersons' home was just $3,109.
The case against the Andersons may mark the first time HCAD has ever sued an individual homeowner over an appraisal.
"We were harassed," says Cheryl Anderson, a fourth-grade teacher in Cy-Fair Independent School District. "Our neighbors were out to get us."
Marianne and Findley West aren't afraid of a little industrial waste. "When I was a kid I played in sludge pits; I walked barefoot on oily roads; I walked over so much oil you wouldn't believe it," says Findley West, a 65-year-old retired insurance agent. "I would slide in sheets of oil and it didn't bother me a bit."
The Wests, married 36 years, grew up in northwest Houston and remember the days when Fairbanks Oil Field was still operating. And that didn't stop them from buying their home in Woodwind Lakes in 1995.
"I'm not a stick-your-head-in-the-sand kind of person, but I just don't feel like there's anything to be concerned about," says 62-year-old Marianne West, a former seventh-grade English teacher in Houston Independent School District. "It's Houston; everything in Houston was built on former oil and gas operations."
To say Marianne West is active in Woodwind Lakes would be a gross understatement. She has served on the homeowners association board, the supper club committee and the grounds committee, writes for the neighborhood newsletter, hosts bunco parties and "was the inspiration for" the women's club, she says.
Another title she holds: neighborhood gossip.
Here is Marianne West's take on Woodwind Lakes residents who have filed lawsuits: "They hopped on the bandwagon so they could make some money."
Here she is on Paul and Cheryl Anderson: "They were pariahs in the neighborhood."
Here she is on Paul Anderson's career: "Paul Anderson's finances were discussed around here for years. He had no livelihood."
And here she is on the Andersons' relationship: "Everybody liked Cheryl and felt sorry for her to be married to Paul."
That's what Marianne West says today -- eight months after she sent a public apology via e-mail to more than 200 Woodwind Lakes residents as part of an agreement to settle a slander lawsuit brought against her by Paul and Cheryl Anderson.