By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
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On May 14, 2003, Phillips and some 20 other residents met in a large room at a nearby community center. Guest speakers included Guy Grossman, the local RRC district director, and Gary Jacobson, ChevronTexaco's environmental projects manager for Texas.
The Phillipses insisted on recording the meeting, despite protests from homeowners association board members. It lasted three hours. According to a transcript of the meeting on file with the RRC, it went like this:
Grossman began by telling the history of Fairbanks Oil Field, though he neglected to mention the Delroc oil refinery.
Grossman said the only reason they were testing in the neighborhood was because "that individual...was very vocal that there were problems out there. And kept coming and kept coming." It's unclear who Grossman was referring to, though it was likely Paul Anderson or Bernie Milligan.
"You-all are going to be drilling a hole in our driveway," Robert Phillips interrupted. "What happens if this is really horrible stuff? I mean, who's responsible and what's going to be done?"
Jacobson, who did most of the talking, replied: "ChevronTexaco will...make sure that you're safe...we'll take care of you..."
Jacobson went on to explain the existence of "data gaps" since records from earlier investigations into Woodwind Lakes had been "scattered."
"They did some testing," Jacobson said of the work done in the mid-1990s. "It's just, it's really hard to give you a lot of assurance they did a really good job here..."
Jacobson failed to add that ChevronTexaco had rebuffed several requests to participate in testing during this period.
Jacobson proved somewhat clumsy discussing the biomound. "It is common practice," he said. "I don't know if it's common practice to leave a biomound later in a neighborhood, but it's common practice in the oilfield..."
Jacobson had talked for more than an hour when Melissa Phillips finally interjected: "I -- you know, I'm just scared. I mean, we're the kind of people that don't use charcoals because we don't want those inhalants. And I'm scared. I'm scared of what we might find or what has disappeared in the last five years that's already in our system or in our trees and in the leaves and dropping on the ground..."
She continued: "You know, it's kind of interesting. We just had our backyard torn up and had a bunch of trees put in, and they came out with this really heavy equipment and these twirly blades, and they went pretty deep and got our ground all torn up. And now our dogs have these really strange skin conditions, and they throw up every day, all four of them. If it was just one dog that was sick, you know, you probably wouldn't think too much about it...We took our dogs to the vet and he said he hadn't seen this skin rash before."
Then she made Jacobson an offer: "This is really -- it's going to sound like a funny question, but this is an emotional question. If anxiety over this is a problem, would Chevron like to buy our house now?"
"No," Jacobson replied, "Chevron would not like to buy your house now."
Melissa Phillips persisted: "Would somebody involved in this like to buy our house? They could resell it if there's no problem."
"I can only speak with regards to ChevronTexaco," Jacobson said, "and I can tell you Chevron does not want to buy the house."
The discussion eventually shifted from health risks to property values. The number of homes for sale in Woodwind Lakes shot up in 2003 from 15 to 35, according to residents. Some homeowners, they said, did not want to know about the site's history so they could avoid the burden of having to provide disclosures to potential buyers.
Toward the end of the meeting, a homeowner unnamed in the transcript asked: "Do we have to disclose if Chevron finds nothing?"
Jacobson: "Am I a real estate attorney? No. So I don't know the answer...I would think that you would disclose that this was -- this was a gas plant and an oilfield and we had appended property, or my neighbor's property was tested and we have a report that shows that the area does not pose unacceptable risk. I would think if you don't disclose that, you might...end up having a deceptive trade practices act filed against you later."
The homeowner: "So everybody in this room that bought a house had something deceptive..."
Jacobson: "You know, I could be misspeaking completely. I'm a geologist, I'm not...just retract what I just said. Talk to your attorney."
The Phillipses followed the advice and immediately contacted Paul Waldner, from the law firm of Vickery & Waldner, LLP, who sent a letter dated June 6, 2003 threatening to sue the oil and gas companies, the homebuilders, the developer and the title company alleging gross negligence, breach of contract, civil conspiracy and fraud.
Waldner's letter also cited Julie Sample, a sales agent for Coldwell Banker United who has lived in Woodwind Lakes since 1994 and sold more than 100 homes in the subdivision -- many with no disclosures. Sample is currently a defendant in a separate lawsuit now pending in Harris County 113th District Court. The suit alleges that in June 2003, Sample sold a house in Woodwind Lakes that sits directly atop the old Delroc refinery without providing adequate disclosures. Sample declined to comment on the suit via her attorney.
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