By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
In early 1994, Shell contracted Espey, Huston & Associates, Inc., which conducted a limited evaluation, approved by the RRC, in which just one soil sample was taken from each "area of concern" and tested for a tiny handful of potentially harmful constituents. The groundwater was not tested at all and no effort was made to delineate the vertical or horizontal extent of any contamination.
Still, test results confirmed six soil samples with levels of chromium and total petroleum hydrocarbons exceeding state health standards.
By early 1995, Shell dropped Espey, Huston and retained Bio-Technologies, Inc. to bio-remediate 2,500 cubic yards of contaminated soil. This entailed excavating the dirt, piling it in an area and exposing it to oxygen and sunlight for several months until contamination levels fell below state protective health standards.
The biomound -- which initially towered 15 feet and covered a 14,000-square-foot area, according to some estimates -- was supposed to be located in a section where no homes would be built. Shell stuck it in what was already planned to become a recreation area adjacent to a playground, tennis courts and a pavilion. With the RRC's blessing, Shell then used remediated layers from the biomound as fill in various backyards. It is unknown where exactly the dirt was dumped.
RRC spokeswoman Ramona Nye declined interview requests for this story. Nye insisted that all questions be submitted in writing, and would provide only written responses.
"At Woodwind Lakes," Nye e-mailed the Press, "the soil remediation 'biomound' was constructed in an area that was originally identified to the Railroad Commission as a 'restricted area.' The 'biomound' area became a recreational area after the soils were remediated. RRC staff is not aware of other similar situations, i.e., where a remediated 'biomound' is subsequently included in a recreational area of a residential development."
No signs were ever posted to either warn or inform homeowners about the biomound, which today is the shared property of all 631 homeowners in Woodwind Lakes since it resides in a communally-owned area.
"I've never heard of putting a biomound in a residential area -- certainly not a recreation area," says Rinehart from the EPA. "You shouldn't expose people to it, especially small children."
The homeowners association at Woodwind Lakes for years has hosted annual Easter egg hunts and fall festivals on the biomound featuring clowns and inflatable moonwalks for kids, says current association president John Oyen. "There's no health risk," insists homeowner Oyen, a trained chemical engineer. "People who think there's a problem are ignorant."
Last Saturday, neighborhood children were invited back on the biomound again to scrounge for plastic eggs filled with candy.
Jerry Nickell, owner of the company that created the biomound at Woodwind Lakes, described Shell and his underlings as doing everything possi- ble to cut corners, meet deadlines and keep matters hush-hush, according to his February 2, 2005 deposition.
"There was a high level of anxiety associated with what they were finding out at the site," Nickell said. "They were in a big hurry to get us done and get us out of there."
Nickell continued: "We were instructed by Lakeland not to convey any information to anyone...[Shell] wanted to keep a tight lid on, as much as he could, on what we were doing."
According to Nickell's deposition, Shell ignored his recommendation against compositing soil samples -- a notoriously easy way to manipulate test results by diluting dirty samples with clean ones.
"The composite sample analysis was not the right approach," Nickell said, "but [Shell's] excuse was expense."
Nickell added: "I think they were behind schedule...and that they had urgent need for the development of these lots due to some commitments to the builders."
Shell, whose second-floor office is located on Richmond just west of Kirby, rejects Nickell's assertions. "We didn't sweep this under the carpet," Shell says, adding that it is "typical of any developer" to complete a project as quickly and cheaply as possible. He says his company has spent $400,000 investigating the site.
Bojes, the RRC toxicologist, admitted in a deposition years later that testing done in most of the "areas of concern" during the 1990s was inadequate, adding that "if I got the site today, I would have recommended" a full investigation to determine the nature and extent of contamination.
Instead, on August 15, 1995, the RRC officially closed its file on Woodwind Lakes, giving Trendmaker Homes and David Weekley Homes the go-ahead to complete the subdivision.
Shell says the homebuilders were "fully informed" of the site's history and the environmental investigations during the mid-1990s. Representatives for homebuilders were often present at the excavation sites, Nickell said in his deposition.
Brendan Cook, attorney for Trendmaker, downplays just how much the company actually knew. "There was some minimal level of knowledge," he says, "[though] certainly not what has come to be revealed."
But neither the developer nor the homebuilders provided any disclosures to the vast majority of potential homebuyers plunking down as much as $300,000 to live in Woodwind Lakes.
There were a few exceptions, such as Paul Anderson, who signed releases with minimal disclosures regarding the site's history. But this was done only after oil wells or petroleum pipelines were discovered on their specific lots. "Trendmaker," Anderson says, "knew the oil and gas operations were much more extensive than what I was agreeing to."