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Flip through the real estate section of any local daily paper, and you’ll likely find an advertisement for Mantua, a large and affluent housing development just outside the beltway in Fairfax County. The adspart of a multimedia campaign titled “Mantua: A Great Place to Call Home”highlight the perks available in what for decades has been one of the most desirable addresses in one of the country’s toniest counties. Plunk down a few hundred grand for any of the 1,700 or so homes in the community, and you, too, can enroll your kids in the best public schools in the area and hang at Mantua’s quaint swim and tennis club. The gist: Move here, and you’ll live the Good Life.
The promotional blitz is working wondrously: Home sales in Mantua are booming, up about 70 percent over last year, according to area real estate agents.
And not without reason. Ask Mantua’s residents, and they’ll hold forth on the wonders of their tree-lined, curbless streets. They’ll go on about the incredible attendance at this year’s Memorial Day bike parade and probably divulge plans for the upcoming Flower and Plant Swap Meet. Mantua, you’ll hear, really is a great placeto raise kids, retire, die. A “destination community,” in realtor parlance.
But alas, the newspaper ads, like most Mantua residents, don’t tell the whole story about the place. The fine print makes no mention of the giant petroleum repository that sits right outside the moneyed community. And it’s left unsaid that a massive amount of the fuel stored at the facility oozed into Mantua a few years ago, forcing the emergency evacuation of some of its denizens and sparking fears of an explosion and questions about a leukemia outbreak that linger very, very quietly. And speaking of lingering: Though the flow of oil into the neighborhood has by all accounts been stemmed and the stench of the wayward fuel been expunged, a veritable sea of processed petroleum products still lies dormant beneath a big chunk of land here and is expected to stay put well beyond the life expectancy of most Mantuans.
The ads for Mantua don’t say who paid for them, either, but that’s no mistake: Those bills were paid by Star Enterprise, a Saudi
Arabian-owned Big Oil brother that has accepted blame for the contamination. The company now owns most of the properties for sale in Mantuajust one aspect of the multitiered penance it’s paying for having given the community an unwanted fill-up. Star has likewise made deals with hundreds of other aggrieved homeowners in the community, deals that allow it to artificially manipulate the market value of real estate here. But again, those unpleasant tidbits don’t rate a remark in “Mantua: A Great Place to Call Home.”
Someday, the fees Star pays to keep the promos running will look like a drop compared with the hundreds of millions of dollars the company will dump into the community to undo the damage caused by the oil it dumped here first. And if you ask residents, they’ll say that the influx of oil money has kept Mantua as charming as it’s ever been.
Maybe it has. But only above the surface.
After a day of heavy rainstorms in the fall of 1990, workers at Economy Auto Parts on Pickett Road in Fairfax noticed a rainbow-colored sheen creeping across the store’s parking lot. It smelled like gasoline. Investigators with the Fairfax County Fire Department were called to the scene and quickly traced the fuel to a storm drain behind the store. The detectives, however, were unable to immediately establish how the contaminant had gotten into the sewer system.
At first, authorities suspected that the fuel so prettily displayed in Economy’s lot likely resulted from an isolated case of illegal dumping at a nearby construction project. On a hunch, they staged a video stakeout of some local work sites. The probe proved fruitless.
The case-breaking lead came from an unlikely source: A resident in nearby Mantua, about a quarter mile east of the parts store on the other side of a wooded tract, reported smelling gasoline in Crook Branch Creek while she was walking her dog. Other Mantuans began filing similar reports, and it soon became clear that the Economy lot had been discolored by something much bigger and far more ominous than a construction crew.
Plainly put, the investigators struck oil. The sights and smells that annoyed locals were actually byproducts of a 20-acre underground petroleum plume that ran from the western end of the community to a fuel storage depot, or “tank farm,” across Pickett Road. At the time, four oil companiesStar, Chevron, Amoco, and Citgoshared ownership and use of the facility, which stored about 40 percent of Northern Virginia’s total petroleum supply (Chevron has since left). A closer look revealed that the fuel in Mantua had come from the portion of the farm operated by Star, a partnership between the Saudi government and Texaco entrusted with the refining and marketing of Texaco gasoline east of the Mississippi River (locals generally refer to the company that turned their back yards into an oil sponge as “Texaco”).
Early damage appraisals by Virginia authorities estimated that as many as 4 million gallons of Star oil had leaked into the soil surrounding the tank farm. All of a sudden, folks whose biggest chemical worry had been ensuring that the chlorine in the swimming pool was just so faced fears that their neighborhood was harboring an underground Exxon Valdez.
When Michael DeArmond bought the house at 9319 Convento Terrace in Mantua in 1964, he was fully convinced he had snagged his dream home. DeArmond, like so many family men who migrated to Northern Virginia in the 1960s, was career militaryAir Force was his branch. But before DeArmond moved into his new place, the Pickett Road tank farm opened up.
Today the idea of an industrial park sprouting up astride an affluent development seems impossible. But in the early 1960s, Mantua lacked a group of NIMBY activists to fend off the tank farm. That’s more a sign of the times than evidence that residents dropped the ball. Environmental regulations of any kind were basically unheard of back then, as the EPA was years away from being founded. Nobody even thought of gasoline, leaded as it was in those days, as being all that toxic. Until the late 1970s, service station employees everywhere routinely siphoned gas by mouth and used it to wash grease from their hands.
DeArmond’s property was a mere quarter mile from the fuel-storage facility. However, a wooded expanse stood in the middle, and there were no roads connecting Mantua to Pickett Road. Which explains why DeArmond had no clue that the tank farm even existed, let alone that it came within a geyser’s reach of his house.
But DeArmond never had to go searching for the tank farm. It came to him.
“The thing I remember most was this big blue spruce that I’d planted in the front yard after I’d used it as a Christmas tree in the house,” recalls DeArmond. “I watched it grow for years and years, till it got about 40 feet tall. But when the gas hit, that thing was dead and gone within weeks.”
After Fairfax authorities found the plume underneath DeArmond’s property, fire marshals set up equipment inside his house to detect BTEXsbenzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene, gasoline’s most toxic components, which are known to cause leukemia. Along with concerns about exposure to the carcinogens, officials were worried that DeArmond’s house might combust and spark a sort of backyard barbecue Mantua residents had not yet seen.
“Every now and then the alarms would go off in the basement, and that would scare the hell out of us,” says DeArmond. “There weren’t any explosions, but who knows how much harm this did to our health? You can’t see the damage.”
Without the county’s high-tech equipment, DeArmond wouldn’t have known whether the toxic fumes were reaching dangerous levels: He lost all sense of smell from sniffing the rank fumes that wafted over when the county tore up his neighbor’s front yard.
Finally, on an afternoon in the spring of 1992, DeArmond came home from a shopping spree and learned from his bawling daughter that county officials had ordered the familyDeArmond, his three kids, two dogs, and two catsto vacate their dream house within two hours. By then, DeArmond’s back yard had been reduced to little more than a moat, as county officials ordered contractors to dig a ditch 200 feet long and more than 20 feet deep behind the house, hoping to get a better look at the progress of the wicked wave.
After a few months of living with his family in local hotels and motels on the oil company’s tab, DeArmond sold his house to Star. He spent the villain’s money on a house in Clifton, Va.
DeArmond still stops by Mantua on occasion, either to play tennis or to catch up with his former neighbors. Nobody who lived on his block before the spill still lives there, but many contamination refugees have stayed in the area, and those who left were invited by the community association to retain membership privileges at the swim club.
“My old house looks pretty much the same as I remember it, which is very nice,” DeArmond says wistfully. “I can’t say I don’t miss Mantua. That was the greatest place to live, the best place I’ll ever live. But I know what’s down there now, below the ground. And once you’ve smelled that smell coming from your own yard, that awful, chemical smell…well, I can’t look at that place without thinking about that smell.”
Star still holds the deed to DeArmond’s house. The owner of the oil that ravaged his neighborhood also owns or has owned every other home on Convento Terrace. Right around the time he fled, Tom Zeitz, a project manager from the Pickett Road plant, moved into a home just two doors down from DeArmond’s former residence. The company claims that the timing of Zeitz’s move to the contaminated block was purely coincidental. Not everybody believes that.
“It was such a phony thing they did, putting an employee in our neighborhood,” one former Convento homeowner angrily recalls. “Like that was going to make us think that everything was fine.”
By a weird fate, Mantua happened to be the home of a big shot with extensive experience in fighting Big Oil: Mike Hausfeld, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and longtime Mantua homeowner, won several hundred million dollars for a class of Alaskan natives in a lawsuit against Exxon over the Valdez spill, which occurred about a year before the Fairfax discovery. So when Star’s role in the Fairfax spill broke, Mantuans looked to Hausfeld, whose own home was just three blocks from the most severely contaminated areas of the development, and he agreed to take up their cause.
According to Hausfeld, neither he nor his constituents saw green in the black liquid that had seeped into their yards, storm drains, and basements.
“We were most interested in keeping the neighborhood intact,” Hausfeld says.
To keep the matter out of court, Hausfeld proposed that the oil company demonstrate its good faith by subsidizing a wholesale relocation of the homes initially thought to be right above the petroleum plume.
Although the plan sounded radical, it looked feasible at the time, since George Mason University had recently offered for sale a parcel of uncontaminated, undeveloped woodland adjacent to the contaminated site.
“There wasn’t any precedent for that kind of home-moving plan, but we were looking for the bestand cheapestway to protect the interests of the most affected people and address the problem,” says Hausfeld. “Our plan would have let everybody stay in the neighborhood, in their own homes and, after a cleanup, the land directly above the spill, where the homes used to be, would be turned into a park. We talked to engineers, we talked to the residents, and everybody agreed it could be accomplished.”
Everybody, that is, except Star.
“In fewer words and with greater emphasis, they said no way to our offer,” says Hausfeld.
Hausfeld filed suit against Star in the fall of 1991, shortly after the relocation plan bit the dust. And that’s when Mantuans and Star, for whatever reason, decided it would be mutually beneficial to just get along. Despite the company’s harsh rejection of the residents’ initial proposal, the plaintiffs and the defendant, in hushed voices, started singing a more cooperative tune after the filing. Settlement negotiations began almost immediately and, with amazingly little public acrimony, both sides reached an agreement within two years of the initial discovery of spilled oil.
“I think it was very interesting how fast Texaco settled,” laughs DeArmond. “Let’s be serious. If this place was less affluentif Mantua didn’t have so many doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs living therethis whole situation would have been handled a whole lot differently.”
Under the settlement, Star agreed to shell out more than $8 million to buy all 26 of the homes directly above the plume. Additional cash payments went to the owners of those properties for the emotional turmoil they had suffered, but the recipients agreed not to disclose how much they had wrung from the deep-pocketed polluter.
Star also pledged to guarantee the sale prices of homes belonging to 300 other Mantuans who lived within four blocks of Ground Zero. “We want the houses over there to sell at market value,” says Star spokesman Joe Kelly.
While Star won’t say exactly how many Mantua properties it holds, residents place the number at around 100 and say the company has right-of-first-refusal arrangements with a few hundred other homeowners. If those estimates are accurate, Star now controls around 20 percent of the entire development.
Like any profit-hungry company, Star has done a good job of protecting its investment. In particular, it kept the development from taking on the look of a ghost town after the initial oil scare.
“Everybody realized that this had the potential to be a Love Canal-type situation, where everybody just leaves after contamination is found,” says Gary Mason, an attorney who worked with Hausfeld in representing Mantuans. “Nobody wanted that to happen.”
So Star brought in a gang of temps. With the help of a tenant-locating service, Star signed contracts with temporary residents, who acknowledged the risks of living above oil-drenched soil, agreed to maintain the property, andhere’s the catchvowed to move out within 10 days if the home were sold. In exchange, they would pay rents of no more than $700 per month, or less than half of what the dwellings would command in an oil-free Mantua.
Star has only recently begun selling its properties but has promised the Mantua community association that it won’t depress home values by offering more than six homes for sale at any one time. That agreement, however, is tough to enforce.
“The real estate agent I worked with gave me a map that had all the Texaco homes marked on it,” says one recent Mantua buyer. “And he kind of gave me a wink and a nod that indicated that if I liked any of those homes, Texaco would be entertaining offers even though they weren’t officially up for sale.”
Star also spruced up Mantua’s tarnished public image with cosmetic upgrades. New red brick walls at the entranceways to the community, emblazoned with its logo, lend the neighborhood a posh, planned-community look. Tennis-playing Mantuans now dart about on freshly resurfaced courts. And clubgoers sample the summer breeze in a new gazebo. All at Star’s expense.
And Star knows how to lure its target clienteleyoung families with grade-school children. The company is donating a state-of-the-art computer network to Mantua Elementary School that, when completed, will cost an estimated $1 million. The network will support at least four computer workstations in each classroom. The setup isn’t fully in place yet, but that’s only because the school’s original power supply wasn’t big enough to accommodate that many terminals.
“I feel very fortunate to get all this equipment, I really do,” says Ellen Schoetzau, the school’s principal. “But the community paid a huge, huge price to get this. I was here when this situation all started six years ago, so I remember when the kids would come to school and show their fear about what was going on, when their houses were being monitored for vapors and fumes. We did what we could to help them, brought in people to talk to the children about the contamination to try to let them vent their anger about what was happening, but we didn’t really know what was going on, either. Those weren’t the best of times here.”
According to some Mantuans, the oil that invaded their neighborhood brought something more nefarious than a stench and a big hassleit brought disease. Although there is no hard evidence to support their claims, there is a growing file of anecdotage: At least 16 current and former residents link their bouts with cancer to Star’s leaky holding tank. Thirteen women in the community blame the poison for birth defects in their newborn babies. Cardiologist Dr. James Lamberti treated so many Mantuans for shortness of breath that he offered a free health screening to hundreds of community residents. Around 30 percent of the patients he screened showed symptoms of asthma, a rate several times the national average.
It’s all a big coincidence, according to a study performed by a research panel operating under the auspices of the Virginia Department of Health (Lamberti was excluded from participating in the study; he declined several interview requests for this story). The state-chartered study, which was released this past January, found no link between the spill and the rash of ailments among Mantuans. “There is no current or likely future public health threat from human exposure to the petroleum hydrocarbons from the plume,” the researchers concluded. They went on to recommend, bizarrely, “against conducting any new health study to monitor” the impact of the spill. The recommendation hardly surprised Mantua residents, since Star paid for the study.
Appearances notwithstanding, Dennis Hill, Fairfax County’s environmental health director, claims the “state” study’s sponsors didn’t sway the findings.
“Star funded that study because that was called for as part of the company’s settlement with the state,” explains Hill. “But I don’t think you can say just because they paid for it that it wasn’t objective. Star could suggest experts that could be used to do the research for it, but the company didn’t have final say over anything.”
“This sounds odd, but I guess you could say that we didn’t get the answers we’d hoped we’d get from the study,” says Fran Kieffer, a Mantua resident and community-association volunteer who periodically briefed her neighbors on the health studies. “We don’t want everybody to be sick, but among the people here I think there is still a sense that there really was a negative health impact from what happened here and that the panel chose not to say that there was one in that study.”
The EPA has been working on its own (presumably more objective) “risk assessment” of the Fairfax site for three years but has yet to release any of its findings on whether the spill has spread disease through Mantua.
“They’re already a year late with that report,” huffs Michael Neuhard, a Fairfax fire battalion chief and chairman of the county’s hazardous materials task force.
No affluent community endures a mishap like the tank-farm spill without creating a pesky neighborhood group. After Fairfax authorities discovered the creeping oil, a group of concerned Mantuans formed Citizens for a Healthy Fairfax (CHF) with a simple mission: to force Star to close down the tank farm and find still-green pastures to sully with the more than 12 million gallons of fuel it stored there. Star closed its Pickett Road operations during the early days of the spill investigation but reopened the tank farm just a few months later, shortly after the company reached its settlement with the Mantua plaintiffs.
CHF members picketed outside the Pickett Road facility, campaigned door-to-door within Mantua, and circulated fliers on the continuing threat from lingering oil deposits. The group’s efforts never gathered much steam, though. Perhaps fearing that the spotlight on Star would further undercut neighborhood property values, fewer than 20 percent of Mantua homeowners signed a CHF petition calling for Star to move the facility.
Their sputtering campaign notwithstanding, CHF activists got a boost in 1992 from a commission selected by Gov. Doug Wilder, which recommended that the tank farm be shut down and moved “to an appropriate industrial site.” As part of its final report, the ad hoc commission, which studied the Mantua affair for more than a year, identified seven sites in the state that it deemed more suitable for a tank farm. Wilder ignored the findings.
“Getting the facility closed down was always a long shot,” recalls Rep. Tom Davis, who was chairman of Fairfax’s board of supervisors during the peak of the Star crisis and now represents Mantua’s district in Congress. “But I really think we could have gotten the farm closed down if we had better support from the governor’s office. I really do. We didn’t get any support, because there was a lot of pressure put on the state by the oil industry, not just from Texaco. And in the end, the feeling also was, well, you’ve got to get your gas from somewhere.”
In March 1993, while the Mantuans fought for closure of the Pickett Road facility, a citizens group in East Austin, Texas, was celebrating the shutdown of a leaky tank farm in its neighborhood.
“The difference in the Fairfax and Austin situations was that in Texas the state got directly involved in pushing for the owners of the tank farm to move,” says Lois Epstein, an engineer for the Environmental Defense Fund, a watchdog group that monitors, among other things, leaky petroleum plants. “The people of Fairfax didn’t get that.”
Kathy Sheridan, the longtime Mantua resident who headed up CHF, still resents the apathy of the state’s elected leadership. “You’d like to believe in your government, that they are going to protect your health and safety and have the best interests of the citizens,” she says. “That’s what you teach your kids! But it was absolutely crushing when the government didn’t support us, didn’t stand up for us. In the end, everything we’d done, everything the commission did, seemed like a complete waste of time, and that was very, very demoralizing.”
So demoralizing, in fact, that Sheridan sold her home in 1993 and moved out of Mantua. The buyer? Star.
“It wasn’t just me. Most of the people who were involved with me in fighting Texaco ended up selling out to them and leaving Mantua,” says Sheridan. “Nobody else would buy a house in Mantua then.”
People are buying homes in Mantua now. In a big way.xxxxxxxxxxxxxx
“Sales are a whole lot better now than they’ve been in years, since before the spill,” says Bill Rakow, a longtime Mantua resident and real estate salesman.
Much of the credit for the turnaround goes to the Community Information Center, a storefront real estate office/propaganda dispenser founded by Star as part of the Mantua settlement. The outlet serves up an assortment of feel-good handbills about today’s Mantua.
“Oh, here’s a good story,” chirps a receptionist at the center, picking up what sure looks like a xeroxed copy of a newspaper article and handing it to me. Under the headline “Mantua: Making Major Strides,” the piece discards all pretensions to objectivity: “Make no mistake about it, Mantua is today what it always has beena wonderful place to live and raise a family.” But there’s one problem with the articleit’s a phony news story. In the fine print at the end of the article, the “reporter” is identified as a project manager for the Community Information Center, which is another way of saying “Star Enterprise contractor.”
The center also hands out free videos titled Mantua: A Great Place to Call Home. The video, along with the other promotional materials (including the advertisements that have been showing up in real estate sections), was produced by Ryan-McGinn, an Arlington crisis-management/PR firm hired by Star after the spill. Amenities like the residents-only bus service that runs from Mantua “all the way to the Pentagon and Capitol Hill” and the recently held contest “to find the oldest tree in the neighborhood” (a spruce from “before the Revolutionary War” took first place) get a full airing in the five-minute video, which also highlights improvements to the swimming pool and (but of course) the new computer system at Mantua Elementary School.
In one scene, Rep. Davis credits “some grants” for enabling the school to go high-tech. Later, the narrator says the fantastic new computer lab grew out of “a unique partnership” between the school and “the local business community.” Neither Davis nor the narrator ever mentions Star. Truth be told, the video is devoid of any mention of Star or the oil spill.
“I don’t really see an obligation to attribute everything to Star,” says Star spokesman Kelly.
Mantuans hardly seem upset by the lack of attribution. Star’s efforts to put a wholesome, all-American veneer on one of the area’s dirtiest environmental mishaps have earned plaudits from locals, especially those in the real estate biz.
“Some Texaco officials asked me to meet with them a while back,” says Rakow. “The first thing I told them was to invest in Mantua like they owned a chunk of the community, because, well, they did. And they’ve followed my advice.”
Families are moving into Mantua again. At the time of the oil discovery, Mantua Elementary School, which gets all its pupils from the development, had 565 students. When doors opened for the 1996-97 school year Sept. 3, enrollment had jumped to 720.
“That’s the most students we’ve ever had in this school, by far,” says principal Schoetzau. “We had to move in 11 trailers to have enough classrooms.”
Steve DelBianco bought his Mantua home in May 1993, before there was any Community Information Center. He was the first new homeowner to come into Mantua after the discovery of the oil contamination. DelBianco came looking to buy when home sales in the neighborhood were virtually nonexistent and property values had plummeted. To nudge new blood into the community, Star offered a deal that would refund DelBianco the money he paid for the house for up to three years after its purchase.
“We were looking for a place with great school districts, and we were looking for a four-bedroom home,” he says. “You put all that together, and there was no comparison with the values we could get in Mantua at that time.”
DelBianco says he logged an incredible number of hours in Fairfax libraries, studying things like the possible health impact of spilled oil, before springing for a place in Mantua.
“And after looking at all that information, I felt that by moving here I wasn’t doing anything that could harm the health of my family,” DelBianco says.
After settling in Mantua, DelBianco got active in neighborhood affairs, serving as the resident group’s liaison to the EPA and Star officials who are charged with monitoring the cleanup effort. In other words, he knows at least as much as any Mantuan when it comes to the status of the remediation.
The deadline for DelBianco to accept Star’s refund offer passed this May. He still owns the home and admits that the spiffy computers at Mantua Elementary School were a major factor in his decision to stay put. His son started the first grade there Sept. 3.
Mantuans like DelBianco have spent years studying the spill, oil contamination, and the settlement with Star. But today, six years after the discovery of the contamination, neither Mantua residents nor environmental regulators know what caused it.
“We never found a smoking gun, something that would allow us to say where the spill came from,” says county environmental health director Hill.
Texaco’s explanation is that Mantua’s oil plume resulted from “a collection of housekeeping deficiencies and design flaws” at the distribution facility. In other words, the oil came from pipes dripping and tanker trucks overflowing at the depot ever since it opened in 1965. The company also now claims that only 170,000 gallons of its petroleum products ever made their way into the Mantua soil and charges that the original estimate by Virginia environmental officials (4 million gallons) is “without basis.”
“Everybody was looking for something at the tank farm, a pipe or a tank, that had a big hole in it, something easy to explain, but there never was anything like that here,” says Kelly. “If that [had] been what caused this situation, it would have been easier to fix. What we found were a whole series of causes over a very long period of time. We just don’t know which cause was responsible for what amounts at which time.”
Whatever the cause, Star has taken measures over the past year to seal up its Pickett Road plant. The company has put all pressurized piping above ground and has installed video cameras to monitor leaks. In addition, it has reinforced all the plant’s vessels with double walling. As a result of the Mantua contamination, Star’s precautions are now mandatory for all large-scale petroleum storage facilities in Virginia.
“The oil industry has been very successful from a lobbying standpoint in preventing the passage of strict laws, but without laws, there’s really no incentive for companies to do anything to keep these tank farms from leaking oil,” says Epstein. “There’s certainly no financial incentive. Because the fact is oil is so cheap, why should an oil company waste time or money seeing if they’re losing a gallon here or a gallon there?”
The cleanup will not be cheap, even for a Saudi entity. Nor will it be quick. One of the few aspects of the Mantua spill that everybody agrees on is that the wayward oil is going to be in Mantua for a long, long time. Star has stopped the flow of oil from the tank farm into Mantua, and is containing whatever fuel has already reached the community. That, of course, is not the same as cleaning up, or “remediating,” the mess. So far the cleanup has consisted of pumping millions of gallons of ground water in the contaminated area back to the Pickett Road plant. The petroleum in the water is filtered out, and the water is returned to Mantua.
And what becomes of the recovered gas? “We return it to storage right there at our tank farm,” says Kelly. That means Mantuansat least those who haven’t chosen to boycott Texaco stationsget the chance to pay at the pump for the very same gasoline that screwed up their neighborhood. Star has hired a contractorClean Sites of Alexandria, Va.to do the dirty deed, but it’ll be another year before Star (after getting approval from federal, state, and local environmental officials) announces what methods will be employed to decontaminate Mantua.
Nobody will say exactly how long it will take to rid the neighborhood of all the underground oil. County health officials and fire marshals rely on a rule of thumb: In the first 20 years of the cleanup effort, only 10 percent of the hydrocarbons now in the soil will be removed or broken down.
Star doesn’t dispute that estimate.
“The sad truth is that the environmental community and industry are finding that it’s virtually impossible to restore contaminated areas, once they’ve been contaminated, to a pre-contamination condition,” says Epstein. “That’s been a real surprise to a lot of people, a real disappointment.”
But whatever mysteries remain about the cause and impact of the spill, one unshakable fact remains: The price of the cleanup will be highin the hundreds of millions of dollars, according to Hausfeldand Star will be getting the bills.
Davis doesn’t think the public passivity of most Mantuans, or the reality that very few residents ever took a bold anti-Star stance after the discovery of oil, should be taken as a sign of weakness.
“I can see why the community didn’t want to make too much [noise] about what happened there,” says Davis. “The people of Mantua realized early on that putting public pressure on Texaco was a double-edged sword. They own property, and while they knew that they could use this situation to hurt Texaco, they also knew that in hurting Texaco they would be hurting their own property values.”
Christy Bergemann, an 18-year resident of the community, is the newest president of the Mantua Citizens Association. She presided over her first board meeting a few weeks ago. The spill didn’t even come up.
Bergemann wasn’t surprised by the exclusion.
“We’re really beyond that whole situation now,” Bergemann said after the meeting. “And it’s not a situation where we’ve been bought off or we’re in denial about what happened here. We’ve moved on. Things are settled, and we’ve gotten on with our lives.”
“When I think about what has happened in this community, I think of it like if you have some cheese that goes bad,” says Bergemann. “All you do is you cut off the bad part, and the rest of the cheese is fine.
A week after she came up with that moldy analogy, Bergemann called me back and suggested another that would be more to her fellow Mantuans’ liking.
“It would be better if I was quoted as saying Mantua is like a human body that’s healing,” she said. “We’re not cheese.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.