Steamrolled

Mom-and-pop industrial plants not as wholesome as they seem.

Deborah Wilkerson was weeding the garden in her backyard when she started to choke. She felt her throat close and her lungs begin to seize as she scrambled inside her home to wash down a drink of water, hoping that would help. But the fluid wouldn't go down. Gasping for air, in short, painful breaths, Wilkerson looked at herself in a mirror and saw her eyes bulging out of their sockets.

A lean, athletic woman, Wilkerson had suffered similar attacks before, and was convinced it was all her neighbor's fault. A concrete company called Titan Gunite had moved in next door, where tall piles of sand dotted the otherwise vacant lot. Whenever the wind blew or the giant industrial trucks loaded or unloaded the sand, the fine grains would sail over onto Wilkerson's property. And over time, says Wilkerson, a self-proclaimed "outdoors nut," the sand took its toll, particularly on her eyes and lungs.

Coughing violently, Wilkerson felt dizzy and fell to her knees. She crawled out to her driveway and climbed inside her car. Somehow, Wilkerson says, she was able to make it to her doctor. She collapsed as she entered the waiting room.

Deborah Wilkerson started wearing a mask to be able to garden at her home
Chris Curry
Deborah Wilkerson started wearing a mask to be able to garden at her home
Wilkerson couldn't get away from the sand blowing in from the plant next door
Chris Curry
Wilkerson couldn't get away from the sand blowing in from the plant next door

When Wilkerson came to, the doctor said he had given her a shot to loosen her airways. Then he told her she could no longer live in her home. She needed to pack up and move.

Wilkerson was heartbroken.

Nearly 20 years earlier, she and her husband had bought an acre of land in north Houston in the Acres Homes subdivision. It was nothing but woods, so every weekend they chopped down trees and cleared the area so they could build their dream home. Wilkerson designed the house, complete with a front porch, a Japanese fish pond, a vegetable patch, flowers and a gazebo. Then she and her husband constructed it from scratch, hammering every nail and painting every wall themselves.

For nearly two decades, Wilkerson raised her children and enjoyed her yard. Gardening, barbecues, weekday naps in the gazebo; her kids nicknamed the home "Heaven."

But "Heaven" would not last.

In either late 2007 or early 2008, Wilkerson doesn't exactly remember, her neighbor's house burned to the ground. When the smoke cleared, all that was left was a vacant lot and a new owner, Titan Gunite.

At first, Wilkerson didn't know what her new neighbors were going to do, as she watched trucks stack piles of sand all across the adjoining property. She soon learned that the company made gunite, a type of concrete specifically used to build swimming pools. The sand was a key ingredient.

It was annoying for sure, says Wilkerson. Not only were sand and dust clouds swirling onto her land, but the noisy trucks would show up before 8 a.m. and would not stop until late at night. But for the first month or so she kept her complaints to herself. After all, Wilkerson understood, this was Houston, and with virtually no zoning laws to speak of, residents live under the constant knowledge that a strip club, a convenience store or even an industrial facility can just move in next door and set up shop.

Over time, however, Wilkerson claims, she began to suffer. The sand blew into her hair, cutting her head. Sand was coating her skin, causing abrasions and rashes, Wilkerson says, and it was getting in her eyes and lungs, causing Wilkerson to lose vision and struggle to breathe.

Finally, in August 2008, Wilkerson filed a complaint with the City of Houston. It would be the first of more than 60 complaints Wilkerson would file over the next two years with different city, county and state agencies.

Inspectors visited the site numerous times. Often, they found no violations, stating that they did not witness any sand blowing over onto Wilkerson's property. However, some investigators did find fault with Titan's operations.

Titan opened its doors without first obtaining a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Following this discovery, investigators noted that Titan was not covering its piles of sand to prevent it from blowing away, and that the sand piles were less than 300 feet from the nearest residence, a violation of the Texas health and safety code.

Despite this realization, and the growing number of Wilkerson's complaints, Titan Gunite continued business as usual. The TCEQ issued notices of violation and notices of enforcement, even levying a fine in excess of $6,000, but they appeared to have no effect, as Titan kept operating.

As a last resort, Wilkerson hired an attorney and took Titan Gunite to court, where she won an injunction against the company to cease its operations until it complied with the distance limit and other regulations. Still, Titan would not close its doors, openly violating the court order.

"I've done all the right things and been through all the right steps," says Wilkerson, "but nothing seems to get them to stop. There are rules in place, but the key word is 'enforcement,' and there is none of that anywhere. I am sick, the TCEQ and the City of Houston and a district court judge know that Titan is not operating within the rules, but no one can seem to stop them. And the scariest part is that this could happen to anyone here in Houston."

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