"When I first met Mrs. Brooks, she answered the door with a baby on her hip and a toddler at her feet," says Jay Klein, principal of Trinity Environmental, a consulting company hired by several homeowners to test properties at Woodwind Lakes. "I was definitely concerned."
John and Kimberly Brooks bought their home in February 1997 for $182,500. With plans to start a family, they fell in love with the lot's huge backyard. Years later, they learned about the unlined sludge pit bubbling toxic waste residue less than two feet below.
The Brookses' backyard represents the most polluted site tested so far in Woodwind Lakes, an upscale subdivision that sits on a former oil and gas field in northwest Houston. Much of the development has never been properly investigated. An adjacent five-acre area comprising 32 houses is currently being evaluated for the federal and state Superfund programs.
"We would move tomorrow if we could," says John Brooks, a 45-year-old petroleum engineer.
Back in the mid-1990s, before the Brookses' house was built, developer Kent Shell contracted environmental company Espey, Huston & Associates, Inc. to test the property. Only a single soil sample was taken, and it came back clean.
"We're fallible people," Shell says, shrugging his shoulders.
The Brookses first learned about the waste pit in 2003 after receiving a letter from ChevronTexaco Corporation seeking access to their property.
The data from the subsequent testing revealed elevated levels of potentially carcinogenic hydrocarbons and volatile organic chemicals.
But no cleanup was performed. ChevronTexaco requested that the state close its investigation of the property, claiming the contamination was not linked to former oil and gas activities.
The Brookses then hired Klein, a licensed geologist, to take more soil and groundwater samples from their backyard. The results were chilling.
Klein found elevated levels of benzene, ethylbenzene, styrene and acetone. Total petroleum hydrocarbons were detected as high as 23,000 milligrams per kilogram -- more than twice the level deemed safe by state regulators.
Worst of all: A layer of hot, oily sludge was discovered just one to four feet below the surface. Touching the sod or breathing the air likely exposed them to dangerous contamination, Klein says.
In his December 18, 2003 report on the Brooks property, Klein blasted the earlier work overseen by ChevronTexaco as negligent and even recommended "testing to verify that no explosive conditions are present at the site..."
The Railroad Commission of Texas, which prompted and oversaw ChevronTexaco's 2003 investigation in Woodwind Lakes, dismissed Klein's warnings.
One week after receiving Klein's report, RRC senior toxicologist Heidi Bojes sent a letter updating the Woodwind Lakes homeowners association on the status of the ChevronTexaco investigation, concluding that "the data do not demonstrate a threat to human health from direct soil exposure."
Bojes did not even mention Klein's report.
"RRC staff's letter provided information...that staff believed was pertinent to this investigation," RRC spokeswoman Ramona Nye explained in a recent e-mail to the Houston Press.
But Klein's findings from 2003 were validated nearly three years later.
ChevronTexaco declined to clean up the Brooks backyard, claiming oil and gas giant Amerada Hess Corporation was responsible since it had leased the former gas processing plant back in the 1970s and was the last company to operate it.
After repeated requests from the state, Amerada Hess eventually visited the property in early 2005, taking 35 soil samples and four groundwater samples.
Three soil samples revealed total petroleum hydrocarbon levels as high as 60,000 milligrams per kilogram, a chart-topping six times higher than the state's protective health levels. Two groundwater samples revealed arsenic, barium, lead, mercury and selenium, also at levels exceeding state standards.
More than an entire year passed before any cleanup was done.
In July 2006, Amerada Hess excavated a hole in the Brooks backyard the size of a large swimming pool, measuring 44 feet long, 28 feet wide and 5.5 feet deep. Amerada Hess then hauled off 288 cubic yards of the contaminated soil and dumped it in a landfill 34 miles away.
"I was freaking," says neighbor Terri Garth, recalling the men in hazmat suits she saw working on the other side of the cul-de-sac.
Klein says he feels vindicated regarding his work in the subdivision. But he remains concerned about the scores of homeowners who have not had their properties tested.
He warns that "leaks could occur anywhere" in the vast maze of old oil and gas pipelines located just a couple feet below the surface throughout Woodwind Lakes: "There's an undiscovered country out there."
Today the Brooks family steers clear of the backyard.
John Brooks says he "can't imagine anyone" wanting to buy the house considering the extensive disclosures he will have to provide to protect his family from lawsuits. He is "waiting to get a clean bill of health from the state" before putting it on the market.
He tries not to think about the health risks.
"The kids," he says "used to dig the dirt, eat the dirt, all the things kids do."
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