Paradise Lost

Once upon a time, the city promised to grow something beautiful in the decaying Second Ward. "La Villa de las Flores" -- the village of flowers -- is what they called this future slice of heaven, where 59 low-income families would live happily ever after.

Sixty architects volunteered in 1992 to discuss with potential residents where to locate the green space for wedding receptions and whether they wanted bungalow or Mexican-style architecture. More than 400 families applied in hopes that their fairy godmother, then-mayor Bob Lanier, would choose them for the ball.

Seven years later, the land that might have been La Villa de las Flores, the former Milby Bus Barn, sits vacant about a mile east of downtown. There are no homes, no families. Bored neighborhood kids ride their bikes back and forth under a picturesque view of the skyline, on sweetly named cul-de-sacs: Calle Azalea, Calle Violetta. These streets, complete with sewer drains, lie among ten acres of mowed grass, in a setting that looks perfect for housing. There's no outward hint of the big, bad toxic wolf that showed up in 1992 to eventually chase away the dreams of what could have been Houston's first such inner-city subdivision.

Even though the city and state long ago declared Milby clean of the waste it once harbored, toxic stigma still oozes from the site. The most promising proposal in years to make something out of the forlorn field was thwarted this summer. The potential buyer, Houston Community College, was scared off by the possibility that toxic chemicals still lurk underground to harm future inhabitants.

Unclear data and varying opinions leave the issue of health risks hazy. What is clear: Houston poured $10 million into cleaning up a large field in the middle of an area that desperately needs development, and four years later that field remains untouched.

Now known primarily as "Milby," the 10.5-acre site sprang to industrial life in 1847 as a lumberyard. The area at Milby and Navigation was used, among other things, for meatpacking, blacksmithing and trolley maintenance. In 1976 the city bought the property for a bus repair facility and held onto the land after Metro closed up shop there in 1983.

Then-mayor Lanier, as part of his push to improve neighborhoods, proposed the 59-home subdivision in 1992. Low-income families would apply to own one of the 1,200-square-foot houses for $40,000 to $50,000, with about $8,000 of that subsidized by the city.

That October, workers doing preliminary work on the site discovered three underground fuel storage tanks left by previous owners. Soil tests revealed major petroleum and lead contamination. In one spot, the lead concentration was almost 300 times higher than the level considered safe for residential use.

City health officials examined nearby houses and encouraged parents to test their kids for contamination. Dangerous lead levels were found in 34 of the 39 homes and in 20 percent of the children who were tested. City officials maintained that lead does not tend to travel underground, so the contamination was not from the site. They attributed the problem to lead-based paint common in older homes.

In June 1993 the city began a massive cleanup of the property. It removed and replaced 58,300 cubic yards of topsoil, enough to cover a football field 14 feet high. The cost ballooned further when the city installed "groundwater recovery systems" to pump out water tainted with chlorinated solvents and motor fuel.

In May 1995 Fugro Environmental Inc. reported to the city that the cleanup had put Milby within Environmental Protection Agency standards for residential areas, and the city health department declared it suitable for housing. Lanier's chief of staff, Dave Walden, told a reporter, "I think we're going to end up building housing there."

But what followed was only silence.

The Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission "certified" Milby as safe last summer, releasing the city from liability to the state and almost certainly to the EPA. But still the city never brought up La Villa de las Flores or affordable housing again.

"Though the site was cleaned up and the certificate was issued, there's no way to make it entirely clean," says Stephen Lewis, the real estate chief of the city legal department. "With people planting and kids playing in the dirt, we think there could be a risk. And we didn't want the city to get sued, if for instance there was a rash of ailments."

But the fairy-tale potential of a big green field in the middle of the inner city has not been lost on everyone. Abel Davila, a Houston Community College trustee, crusaded for more than a year for HCC to build its East End Technology Skills Center on the site. Davila's also running for the District 8 City Council seat but says his effort for Milby is not politically motivated.

Davila says Milby is a large site that would be an obvious location for the vocational training center. (He says the city might lease it to HCC for as little as $1 yearly.) His effort was supported by some state legislators and HCC officials. But then the buried ghost of Milby's past reared up again.

In considering the purchase of the property, the 52,000-student college system used Zephyr Environmental Group to review the city's earlier work and assess Milby's risks. Its conclusion contrasted sharply with the hunky-dory opinions of Fugro, the city's Health and Human Services Department and the TNRCC. Zephyr's Joe Zupan noticed apparently high levels of arsenic in the soil and vinyl chloride in the groundwater.

Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that in high inhalation doses can cause liver damage, blood changes and a plethora of nasty cancers, was detected in high levels in a well about 100 feet east of the site. The data was unclear about the groundwater tested from other wells on the property and near it.

The problem, says Zupan, is that testing instruments apparently could not detect levels of vinyl chloride below .005 milligrams per liter. That is two and a half times above the EPA standard of .002, so the tests could not show if there was a problem.

So why didn't the city insist on more-sensitive testing? Zupan says officials might have been made overly confident by some lab reports that left out detection limits for vinyl chloride and just listed "n.d." for "not detected."

"As a human being you could be a little over-reassured when you hear, 'We didn't even detect vinyl chloride,' " says Zupan. "Well, [ask] at what level did you not detect it?"

Zupan believes that future buildings on the site might trap the gas, which could migrate up through the soil, causing inhabitants to breathe toxic air. In his report he estimates a possible cancer risk 72 times greater than the EPA standard. Zupan suggested that HCC perform soil vapor tests to determine locations of elevated gases. And if HCC officials still wanted to build on Milby, Zupan says, they should construct their buildings with special barriers or ventilation systems to keep toxic vapors at bay.

Zupan's arsenic findings do not overly concern him. "I wouldn't want to park my child there to start eating dirt," he says. "That's about the only way that [the arsenic] would be bad."

Zupan emphasizes that his report was meant to be cautious to advise HCC on all possible hazards. He admits that he may have been working with incomplete data and that the city and TNRCC might have drawn different conclusions because they had access to more information.

"[Having] actual site data is more ideal," says Zupan. "But being conservative means making health-protective assumptions."

HCC hired three law firms to analyze Zupan's report and assess the risks. The Houston Press obtained copies of their confidential opinions calling the Milby development plan a bad idea. While none of the attorneys advised HCC to flat-out reject the proposal, they cited the costs for testing, constructing vapor protections and potential lawsuits by workers and students. The attorneys also worried that the TNRCC might revoke its certification to the city if it found out about the HCC review.

The attorneys' repeated use of words such as "lawsuit" apparently resonated with the HCC board.

"That stuff is probably still cooking," trustee Bill Russell said at the July 22 meeting. "I for one don't need to get into that kind of a mess of a liability -- [putting] students in there who are going to get sick from contamination."

City Councilman Felix Fraga pleaded to the trustees at the session. "I beg you not to reach a conclusion or release any findings until you meet with our environmental people at the city." But it was too late -- the board voted 5-2 to find another site for the technology center.

"Anytime you crunch numbers, you can maneuver it to your advantage," Davila says about the Zephyr report. "I have faith in the City of Houston -- I would hope that after $10 million the site would be cleaned up."

And the city insists that's just what happened. Dr. Pamela Berger, the mayor's director of environmental policy, defends the earlier findings. But she also indicates a willingness to perhaps conduct soil vapor testing in light of HCC's investigation.

Byron Ellington, the Milby project manager for TNRCC, agrees with the idea of soil testing, but he says the agency stands behind its certification of the site as safe.

He and the manager of the project point out that the only elevated vinyl chloride reading came from a well that was not on the site.

Stan Hitt, a regional EPA coordinator, says it is common for labs with old equipment to have vinyl chloride detection limits higher than EPA levels. The Milby site's groundwater would not be used for drinking, so testing at the higher levels would be adequate, he says.

"That's really grasping there," Hitt says of Zephyr's toxic-vapor warning. "It's hard for me to see that there would be an emissions problem."

Leah Flanagan, a city building services project manager, also discounted vinyl chloride worries in a July 23 memo. She reported that the TNRCC has significantly increased the allowable amounts of arsenic since Zephyr's February assessment, so the site is well within the limits for residential areas.

Despite their widely different perspectives, city and HCC environmental representatives never met to iron out the contradictory findings.

So the first solid Milby proposal to come along in years was dealt a virtual death blow, but Berger says someone else is considering developing the site.

Joe Fenninger, HCC's chief financial officer, says the trustees took the only realistic course of action in killing the plan. "Would you like to attend school there? What if you were pregnant? Who knows if there's a liability issue, but why expose the college?"

If the city, HCC and TNRCC seemed confused about Milby, its neighbors seem even more baffled about this outwardly placid property. This field that they live by should be unassuming -- it doesn't do anything -- but its sheer size looms large in the geographic landscape.

It takes a five-minute hike just to traverse these 10.5 acres. Small decades-old houses border the property. Some are quaint with little gardens; most sport rickety frames and peeling paint. Nearby there's a grocery store, some small industrial companies and a few cantinas that get lively on Friday and Saturday nights. The residents, mostly Hispanic, say the neighborhood is usually quiet and safe. But that only accentuates the fear and misinformation lingering on about the threat of lead contamination.

Geneva Tovar still reminds her boyfriend, four years after the massive lead cleanup in their backyard, not to drink from the sink, even though the city never warned about drinking water.

Manuel Moreno, who has lived next to Milby for more than 20 years, says that many of his neighbors also won't drink tap water, and some -- like the people with heart disease next door -- blame their health problems on Milby. Moreno himself is intensely suspicious of the city and its year-long cleanup effort.

"A big crane was digging up dirt, and they were throwing stuff in there," he says. "They want people to see that there's grass growing there and everything, but if you go digging, you're going to find something there."

He points out the barricades that on this August evening block vehicle traffic from entering the site. Those blockades were erected, inexplicably, the night before, and they seem strangely out of place on this sleepy street in front of a serene field.

Moreno wonders at the new additions to the landscape as he stares across the field and beyond, toward downtown and the setting sun. He then marvels aloud: "A lot of people don't even know what happened there."

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