Woodwind Lakes subdivision built on oil and gas field turns on neighbor who pointed out the contamination
Paul and Cheryl Anderson were sinking into their king-size bed late one night in the fall of 2004 when they heard a loud, ominous thump. Already jittery from the constant crank calls and anonymous hate mail, they immediately sprang to their feet.
Accompanied by a barking black Labrador, Paul Anderson barreled downstairs, flung open the screen door and shined a flashlight on a blood-soaked possum lying motionless on the porch with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in its skull. "From then on," the 41-year-old paralegal and published author of books on business and technology says, "I always answered the front door with a shotgun."
The Andersons lived in Woodwind Lakes, an immaculate upscale subdivision comprising 631 large brick houses tucked just inside Beltway 8 in northwest Houston. The lots sold fast when they hit the market about ten years ago, luring attorneys, oil and gas executives and other largely upper-middle-class professionals who compare the development's pine-shaded jogging trails and man-made lakes to the north suburban Woodlands -- only better-priced and located a mere 15 miles from downtown.
An unusually active social scene formed in Woodwind Lakes almost from its inception. Neighbors befriended neighbors at civic clubs, supper clubs, block parties and holiday open houses. The Andersons belonged to that world. Paul sat on the neighborhood security committee, Cheryl sipped wine with other wives at monthly bunco parties and their young son Kyle made loads of friends. The Andersons expected to live in Woodwind Lakes forever.
Then ugly rumors began to circulate. That a chunk of the subdivision had been built on a former oil and gas field. That deadly pollution from old sludge pits, burn pits and even an oil refinery lurked directly beneath their houses and yards. That the hill behind the neighborhood pavilion typically used for Easter egg hunts was a mound of once-contaminated soil, layers of which had been dumped in their backyards.
Many blamed Paul Anderson for spreading these stories. After all, he was the guy spending so much time researching the site's history, dredging up decades-old public documents, griping to the homeowners association and going door-to-door warning neighbors. Many believed he was on some sort of crusade to destroy Woodwind Lakes.
Today federal and state environmental investigations into Woodwind Lakes are ongoing, and part of the subdivision is being evaluated for the Superfund National Priority List of the country's most toxic abandoned waste sites. Cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene linked to former oil and gas activities have been proven to exist at elevated levels in the soil and groundwater. Last summer, 288 cubic yards of sludge-stained dirt was excavated from one family's backyard, leaving a hole the size of a big swimming pool where their infant children once played.
While there is no evidence of increased cancer rates in Woodwind Lakes, there have been numerous reports of pets contracting rare skin disorders and toxic waste residue bubbling to the surface of lawns and driveways after heavy rains.
Nobody can say for certain whether it is safe to live in Woodwind Lakes. During the mid-1990s, before most homes were built, the Railroad Commission of Texas oversaw a whitewashed investigation later deemed inadequate by its own senior toxicologist, Heidi Bojes, who joined the agency in 2001.
High-ranking public officials have admitted they would not risk moving with their own families into certain areas of Woodwind Lakes, even after repeatedly assuring residents that the contamination that has been found poses no threat to human health. "My personal opinion is, I would not put my children there," said Robert Musick, a 17-year-veteran geologist at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who is overseeing the Superfund assessment, in a recent deposition for one of several pending lawsuits related to Woodwind Lakes.
Most families moving into Woodwind Lakes received no disclosures whatsoever about the site's history. Paul Anderson found out before his neighbors, and figured they ought to know. He didn't count on them not wanting to know. For many homeowners, the issue was less about protecting health than protecting investments, and all his muckraking threatened to kill property values.
And so there began a vicious whispering campaign against the Andersons, as once-chummy relations among neighbors turned as toxic as the land under their homes. The talk shifted from environmental pollution to the Andersons' private lives. And no topic, regardless how blatantly untrue, was off-limits at parties and in e-mails circulated throughout Woodwind Lakes, a neighborhood some residents liken to a real-life Stepford, Peyton Place or Wisteria Lane.
Did you hear that Cheryl had to start working because Paul can't keep a job?
I heard their house is being foreclosed upon.
They must be having marital problems.
I heard Paul poured gasoline behind his yard then complained it was polluted.
Rumor has it Paul molested a handicapped kid.
I wouldn't be surprised.
The underlying message was clear: Paul Anderson must be stopped. Even if what he was saying was largely true.
In early 1997, Paul Anderson often drove through Woodwind Lakes to watch his family's dream house being built. But his excitement fizzled when construction crews uncovered an oil well in the front yard.
Anderson complained to Trendmaker Homes, which asked him to sign an agreement releasing the Houston-based luxury homebuilder from any liability. He says Trendmaker's representatives assured him the lot was clean: "They said it was construction debris."
Anderson later mentioned the incident to some of his neighbors, though none became alarmed until the spring of 2001 when Mexican laborers cut into a 16-inch petroleum pipeline while digging a swimming pool in resident Brian Kibler's backyard. The pipe oozed thick black goo and reeked like a Texas City refinery.
Kibler frantically called neighbors Bernie Milligan, a 54-year-old private investigator, and Hank Williams, a 48-year-old chemical engineer, who sprinted over wearing sandals, shorts and tank tops then climbed onto the rebar inside the pit for a closer look. They observed a large oil sheen on the soil, and later complained their eyes and skin burned throughout the night even after washing -- symptoms consistent with exposure to raw crude oil. "It was like applying deep heat or Ben Gay," Milligan recalls.
As members of the neighborhood security committee, Milligan and Anderson used to talk surveillance cameras and speed bumps. Now they swapped details on the area's environmental past after long afternoons spent poring through dusty file boxes at the RRC's district office in the Heights.
By overlaying historical aerial maps from the 1950s, they discovered that nearly one-quarter of Woodwind Lakes -- or 150 homes -- was built atop a vast oil and gas field.
Fairbanks Oil Field, active from 1938 through the early 1970s, comprised 3,000 acres and several hundred wells that produced 42 million barrels of oil, state records show. Warren Petroleum Company, a division of Gulf Oil Corporation later acquired by ChevronTexaco, Inc., ran the Fairbanks Gas Processing Plant and the Ayers Compressor Station from the mid-1940s to 1966 on a total of 18 acres now within Woodwind Lakes.
Delroc Refineries, Inc., active from 19551957, comprised five acres and more than a dozen large bulk tanks that stored gasoline, natural gas, cracking stock and residual waste materials. Delroc operated a topping refinery, splitting crude oil for chemical manufacture and producing industrial fuels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists three dozen hazardous substances associated with this type of refinery, including arsenic, benzene, cyanide, mercury, PCBs, styrene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride and xylenes. Today 32 homes sit on the Delroc site.
Converting fields used for oil and gas exploration into residential areas is not uncommon in Houston and throughout the southeastern United States. But federal and state regulatory agency officials say the five-acre former Delroc site within Woodwind Lakes represents the only known residential development in Texas, and possibly the entire country, built on an old oil refinery. At any refinery site, oil is processed in such a way that hazardous chemicals are created as by-products.
"Typically when areas are used for industrial activities, they continue that way," says Jon Rinehart, a federal EPA site assistance manager for Texas and Louisiana. "You don't put housing developments on top of them."
In December 2003, nearly two dozen Woodwind Lakes homeowners sued oil and gas giants ChevronTexaco and Amerada Hess corporations; Chicago Title Insurance Company, the nation's largest title company; homebuilder Trendmaker Homes, a subsidiary of Washington-based Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company; and Houston-based developer Lakeland Development Company. The case was severed into two separate lawsuits the following year.
The residents allege the developer, homebuilders and title company committed fraud, in violation of the state's Deceptive Trade Practices-Consumer Protection Act. They face an uphill battle getting their case before a jury since Texas tort reform law favors settling disputes between homebuilders and homebuyers in binding arbitration, which is notoriously pro-industry.
The homeowners argue that the arbitration clause in the purchase agreements they signed related only to construction defects, not environmental claims. But in January 2007, the 13th Court of Appeals in Houston ruled against them. Their attorneys requested a rehearing before the entire nine-member appeals court. If that fails, they will appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
They already lost their suit against ChevronTexaco and Amerada Hess earlier this year. The Texas Supreme Court announced on February 2 it would not review the case. The residents claimed the oil and gas companies knowingly buried waste contamination in unlined pits on the property. Attorneys for the defendants successfully argued that the homeowners had "no standing" since the damage was done to the land before they bought it.
In the end, the 19 homeowners may have no legal recourse.
"Folks buying homes should be given the option of whether they want to become laboratory rats," says 37-year-old environmental trial lawyer Andrew Sher, who represents the plaintiffs. "The most significant investment of their lives is potentially worth nothing."
This month, the TCEQ plans to submit its assessment of the old Delroc refinery site to the EPA, which will determine whether it qualifies for the federal or state Superfund program. A final report will likely be issued this summer.
The five-acre site represents the most potentially lethal area in Woodwind Lakes. Benzene and ethylbenzene were found in shallow groundwater samples at elevated levels that could vaporize and migrate into the overlying houses, according to a February 2007 report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Bureaucratic incompetence held up the Superfund evaluation for an astounding two years as the RRC and the TCEQ squabbled over which state agency had jurisdiction.
The RRC, which regulates crude oil production, has supervised most of the environmental investigations at Woodwind Lakes. The TCEQ, which regulates the oil refining process, is responsible only for the Delroc site.
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.
The Wests and the Andersons used to be friends. Well, maybe not friends, but neighborly. They mingled at the same parties for years.
But by 2003 the gloves were off.
The Wests and many other residents of Woodwind Lakes conspired to silence Paul Anderson in an attempt to protect property values and prevent any more environmental testing, according to e-mails obtained by the Press.
Even the subdivision's property manager got in on the action.
"Is there some type of suit we can file to shut [Paul Anderson] up?" Patti Roy of Sterling Association Services, Inc. wrote in an e-mail dated March 10, 2004 to several residents. Homeowners association attorney Russel Holt e-mailed Roy back an hour later: "Maybe we should file a lawsuit against Anderson for injunctive relief...However, I hate for him to go public with the fact that we filed a lawsuit to stop environmental testing in the neighborhood -- this may fit right into his ploy."
On April 14, 2004, Marianne West sent out a mass e-mail to residents. "If you're like me," she wrote, "you're disturbed by the large number of homes for sale in our neighborhood, especially the ones that have been on the market for several months. The environmental issue is having a detrimental impact on our home values and home sales. Some realtors have decided not to show homes in WWL, and many homeowners have had to lower their prices."
One week later, West and several allies formed a new committee intended "to preserve WWL home values (especially in the context of the environmental issue)," according to minutes taken during the first meeting.
The minutes did not show, however, that Paul Anderson was the main topic of discussion. "They spent an hour slandering the crap out of Paul Anderson, saying this was all his creation, that nothing was wrong and they must stop Paul before he destroys everybody's property values," recalls homeowner Tanner Garth, a trial lawyer who serves as co-counsel in multiple pending lawsuits regarding Woodwind Lakes.
On May 8, 2004, leaders of the homeowners' committee e-mailed several northwest realtors, downplaying recent negative media attention and touting the subdivision as "an exquisite waterfront and wooded community similar to The Woodlands and close-in to most everything...Prices are steadily rising...It's easy to see why so many families choose Woodwind Lakes for their retreat and home."
But life at Woodwind Lakes was getting increasingly dark.
On October 2, 2004, Paul Anderson was heading toward his new neighbor Frank Oidtmann's house to discuss the environmental contamination issues. They had talked earlier and Oidtmann expressed some interest in learning more, Anderson says. Apparently Oidtmann had changed his mind.
"Fuck you!" Oidtmann allegedly shouted at Anderson, cocking a shotgun and aiming it at him in front of several witnesses on the cul-de-sac. According to Anderson, Oidtmann continued to point the gun at him even as he lifted his hands above his head and slowly back-pedaled into the street, an account supported by Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable Bob Hall, who has patrolled Woodwind Lakes since its inception.
The Andersons increasingly feared for their safety. They canceled their land phone due to incessant crank calls. Every night they kept the dog inside, activated the alarm and double-checked that all windows and doors were bolted.
"You know, everybody in the neighborhood hates your husband," women at bunco parties told Cheryl Anderson. Paul Anderson would ride his mountain bike through the neighborhood and somebody he didn't even know would yell, "Anderson, you're a dickwad!"
Kent Shell has overseen development of more than a dozen Houston-area subdivisions. But the 61-year-old president of Lakeland Development Company made the unwise decision not to investigate the entire property slated to become Woodwind Lakes prior to its purchase in the early 1990s.
In 1991, Shell hired Vazquez Environmental Services, Inc. to conduct a preliminary site assessment on 95 acres, which concluded that no toxic or hazardous wastes existed within one mile. Shell did not bother to explore the area where the processing plant, compressor station and refinery once sat. "This resulted in the acquisition of the property without knowledge of the gas plant activities," Shell explained years later in a letter to the RRC.
Fairbanks Oil Field changed ownership a couple times when several investors under the name Woodwind Lakes Partnership bought it for an unknown sum in the early 1990s from the Resolution Trust Corporation, the U.S. asset management company that sold off real estate and mortgage loans of failed savings and loan associations. The densely wooded property had been abandoned for decades.
Shell ran through numerous environmental consulting firms during the next few years, inviting speculation later on that he was more concerned with getting the site approved by the state than ensuring its safety -- claims strongly supported by the owner of at least one environmental company contracted by Shell at that time.
In 1993, Shell retained Earth Technology Corporation, which notified the RRC that abandoned petroleum pipelines crisscrossed much of the property. Using historical aerial photographs, Earth Technology identified 15 so-called "areas of concern" where contamination most likely occurred.
In a letter dated December 6, 1993, Earth Technology advised Shell to conduct an extensive soil and groundwater assessment "considering the residential development nearby and the intended development of this property." Shell rejected the advice and hired another company.
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."
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."
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.
The Phillipses and Sample were next-door neighbors and longtime friends. Sample claims she didn't know the area was a former oil and gas site until after the community meeting in 2003, but Robert Phillips and many other residents remain skeptical. "She did what she needed to do to turn over houses in that area," Robert Phillips says. "She's no longer somebody I value to have in my life."
The Phillipses offered to release all parties of liability in exchange for $3.5 million, according to Waldner's letter. But they were bluffing. The suit was never filed; no compensation was made.
The Phillipses drew up a short disclosure and moved to Pearland. Their house sold fast, for a modest profit.
For Paul and Cheryl Anderson, leaving Woodwind Lakes was no easy task. Eight realtors declined to even list their property due to liability issues.
John Oyen, the homeowners association president and the Andersons' next-door neighbor, briefly put his own house on the market during the same period in 2004. Oyen claims the Andersons interfered with his house sale by giving realtors stacks of information regarding the environmental investigations. Paul Anderson says he was surprised residents weren't already providing disclosures.
After several months, Paul Anderson sent an e-mail to many of his detractors in which he promised to leave Woodwind Lakes if they could produce somebody to buy his house at market value. Two weeks later -- whether by coincidence or design remains unknown -- a married couple materialized with an offer.
On July 29, 2005, the Andersons finally closed on the sale. They felt euphoric about the prospect of moving away from Woodwind Lakes.
But when the Andersons returned home, they received copies of a mass e-mail sent out that same morning by Marianne West. It read: "Some if [sic] you may already know this, but Paul Anderson's house has sold and they moved out yesterday. I don't have any other information. Of course, there is a lot of speculation as to whether there was a foreclosure or a marital split. Please feel free to spread this news around the neighborhood."
Enraged, Paul Anderson e-mailed Marianne West later that night: "we are still quite happily married, you are wrong on the foreclosure, and the only disclosure we forgot to give to our new buyers was what a wretched vile gossip you are Marianne. Mouth of the South. And Findley, you are a weak man."
A few days later, Findley West shot back with a venomous 2,000-word response:
First, Findley West defended his own manhood: "I am still fairly strong and can still bench-press over 200 lbs even with my long arms..."
Then he assailed Paul Anderson's: "Simply put, you are weak, you are a coward, you are a liar and you are gutless. Oh, I almost forgot........you are a loser."
He defended his wife Marianne: "While you have attempted to destroy Woodwind Lakes, she was there building it up."
Then he accused Anderson of causing the community's environmental woes: "You have done your devilish best to turn Woodwind Lakes in [sic] a cesspool of contamination."
And, finally, he celebrated their decision to leave: "Now you are moving because you can't afford to live here anymore. So sad. But now that you are gone, the air will become fresh again, and the people will revel in your absence."
Six weeks later, the Andersons sued Marianne West in Harris County 157th District Court for allegedly broadcasting e-mails that were slanderous, libelous and intended to expose them to public hatred.
One year later, on August 31, 2006, the Wests paid the Andersons $10,000 to settle the case after already shelling out more than $20,000 in legal fees.
Additionally, as part of the settlement, Marianne West agreed to e-mail a public apology -- ghostwritten by Paul Anderson -- to more than 200 Woodwind Lakes residents, in which she admitted to spreading false rumors "that the Andersons had committed fraud in their formal HCAD property tax protests, that the Andersons had poured gasoline in a [sic] environmental test area to effect [sic] the test results, that they had filed frivolous lawsuits, and that Paul Anderson had assaulted a 12 year old child."
The apology continued: "I know that many of you have come to rely on me as a source of information about the various Woodwind Lakes issues. I am sorry I have let you down and I am embarrassed and ashamed of misleading anyone."
But the Wests say they have no regrets, that they're neither embarrassed nor ashamed. After the public apology, they say, many residents sent e-mails of support thanking them for all their many years of community service.
"We have no intention of leaving Woodwind Lakes," Findley West says. "Why would we?"
Marianne West agrees: "It's still the same great neighborhood."
Today the Andersons live in a Perry Homes subdivision ten miles from Woodwind Lakes, just outside the Beltway. Paul Anderson says he has moved on, but his actions prove otherwise.
He recently returned to Woodwind Lakes and ran into his old neighbor John Oyen, the current homeowners association president.
Anderson had subpoenaed Oyen regarding the HCAD lawsuit, but Oyen refused to accept the certified mail. Though the suit was already dropped, Anderson got the subpoena from his truck and insisted that Oyen take it. Oyen refused. So Anderson threw it in Oyen's yard and called him a pussy.
On February 22, 2007, Anderson sent Ray Merola and another MUD #261 board member an e-mail slugged "Unfinished business," attaching the legal document that showed the HCAD suit was over.
"Please take the attached and shove it up your asses," Anderson wrote. "You are both unethical slimeballs." Anderson then listed his phone number at the bottom.
Merola says he had the e-mail reviewed by an attorney, at taxpayers' expense.
Anderson seems to be spoiling for a fight. But he claims he just wants the last word. And to show them he isn't scared.
Cheryl Anderson says she often feared for her husband's physical safety when they lived in Woodwind Lakes. She especially worried about Merola, a barrel-chested 48-year-old with a thick New Jersey accent.
"That's sad," Merola says, "because I would never physically threaten anyone. The storytelling is so corrosive in our neighborhood. I'm an elected official. Why would I want to go and fight someone? What am I, 18 years old?"
At Woodwind Lakes, lawsuits are still pending against the developer, homebuilders, title company and realtors. Three of the "areas of concern" identified more than a decade ago remain under federal and state investigation.
Some of the plaintiffs continue to live in the subdivision. "The house is already paid for," explains homeowner Garth, casting some doubt over how concerned he really is about potential health hazards.
Oyen says many residents want the environmental issues -- and the people who worry about them -- to just go away. "People are proud of their neighborhood," he says. "They're positive people and they don't like negativity."
But even Oyen says life has changed in Woodwind Lakes, recalling the early days when residents on his cul-de-sac "used to be very close; that aspect has gone away."
Paul Anderson stays on top of everything related to Woodwind Lakes while working as a paralegal for immigration lawyer Tim Hart, one of the plaintiffs. He says his experiences have inspired him to become an environmental attorney and "fight big, powerful companies on behalf of innocent poor people." He is waiting to hear back from several Houston-area law schools.
The Andersons don't like their new house as much as the old one. But they prefer the neighborhood. "Nobody hates anybody here," 11-year-old Kyle Anderson explains.
His parents remain traumatized.
"I don't trust anyone anymore, period," Cheryl Anderson says.
Paul Anderson agrees: "I don't want to know my neighbors."
When buying their new house, the Andersons did not investigate the property. They know nothing about its history. They do not want to know.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.