By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
Anderson now believes the release he signed was meant to muzzle him, thereby inducing him to commit fraud against his unsuspecting neighbors. He cannot reveal the specific terms of his agreement with Trendmaker, only that he forfeited his right to sue. But that did not stifle his activism:
"I would tell my neighbors, 'Look, I screwed up, but let me tell you what's on your yard.'"
Paul Anderson didn't just tell his neighbors. He called for criminal investigations, filing formal complaints with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, the Texas Attorney General's Office, the Texas Real Estate Commission, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight.
Anderson alleged "the collusion of public officials and state agencies to fraudulently cover up the prior history of this area from residents."
But nothing ever came of his complaints.
When the RRC reopened its file on Woodwind Lakes in 2001 -- five years after closing it -- many of the same officials remained in charge. Unlike the federal EPA, the RRC has no ombudsman to ensure interagency accountability.
"The bad guys are investigating themselves," Anderson says.
The oldest regulatory agency in Texas, the Railroad Commission was established in 1891 to oversee the rail industry. Today it regulates the state's oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety and surface mining of coal and uranium.
Widely viewed as an industry lapdog, the RRC even lacks the authority to require investigations by oil and gas companies at sites where contamination has likely occurred. It can only make requests.
Just 6 percent of the RRC's $62 million annual operating budget is used to assess sites and conduct cleanup activities such as the ones ongoing at Woodwind Lakes. More than one-third -- and in some cases as much as one-half -- of the money collected by the RRC's publicly elected commissioners comes from industries they regulate, according to Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks corporate spending in state politics.
Due to budgetary constraints, the RRC depends on oil and gas companies to conduct environmental testing. "We review the data they send us," RRC toxicologist Bojes said in her deposition, adding that the agency has no way of knowing if tests are skewed or otherwise inaccurate.
Further fueling suspicions, the RRC claims its early files on Woodwind Lakes "were purged of data that did not seem appropriate to long term storage" and "could have been discarded," according to a letter dated January 26, 1998 from Guy Grossman, RRC district director of the oil and gas division for the Houston area.
Two of the environmental companies hired by Shell to investigate Woodwind Lakes in the mid-1990s also claimed years later that their files had been lost or purged.
On July 8, 2002, Shell sent a nine-page letter to the RRC summarizing the investigations conducted at Woodwind Lakes a decade earlier. Shell blasted Warren Petroleum, which is now a subsidiary of ChevronTexaco, for declining to help investigate and clean up the site unless Shell released it from any liability. Shell refused, so ChevronTexaco never returned after initially removing a pair of 1,200-foot-long pipelines.
On November 5, 2002, RRC site remediation assistant director John Tintera sent ChevronTexaco a shrill letter, requesting an environmental investigation. "The RRC is concerned...because historic information indicates that contamination was detected in several areas," Tintera wrote. "These areas may not have been fully investigated and are now a residential community."
Tintera went on in his letter to condemn the earlier investigations approved and overseen by his own agency as "limited in that only one grab sample was collected from each area of concern, limited constituents of concern were evaluated, and the vertical and horizontal extent of contamination was not determined."
Even at this time, many residents at Woodwind Lakes knew nothing about the site's former history, the biomound or the RRC investigations. Some heard rumors but did not believe them. Elected members of the homeowners association assured residents there was nothing to worry about.
On February 26, 2003, Paul Anderson called for the resignations of the entire homeowners association board for not informing residents.
The minutes presented at the next association board meeting held one week later stated only: "Paul Anderson was in attendance to offer comments about neighborhood. End result was no decisions or resolutions made based on comments."
On May 5, 2003, the homeowners association board of directors sent letters to a dozen residents informing them that ChevronTexaco would be requesting access to their properties for "upcoming research."
The letter attempted to downplay the potential problems: "Many other Houston and Texas subdivisions are also part of previous oil and gas fields."
It read as though they had actually won something: "Your property is one of the homeowners' sites that has been selected."
All were invited to an "informational meeting" held the next week.
Robert and Melissa Phillips panicked when they got the letter. A breast cancer survivor, Melissa Phillips suffers from a suppressed immune system resulting from chemotherapy treatment.
"I was shocked and angry, furious because my wife should not be around anything carcinogenic," says Robert Phillips, president of Houston's Sheltering Arms Senior Services. "Even the stress alone excites cancer cells."