My Toxic Houston Childhood

Blogger Maritza Valle grew up in Southbend, next to the Brio Superfund site, just west of San Jacinto College’s South Campus:

I lived in a toxic waste dump when I was young.

Yes, let it sink in like the waste sank into our ground and somehow contaminated the water.

When I was young, I can’t remember how young, my mother and I moved in with Gamma, my maternal grandmother. Maybe I was about 7 because my brother was there too.  I still remember the address: 11606 South Arbor, Houston Texas 77089. It was a subdivision, pretty new, with a nice school just around the block, and our house had a back yard opposite a huge field. Every once in a while, men in weird space-suit looking outfits would come out and mess around with the ground, which concerned me because there were cows out there, and then leave. . . .

***

Because of the effect of the chemicals in the water, many children born and raised in the area had terrible defects, some died. I was very blessed. We moved in just before the news broke, and so ingested very little of the water, there were no negative effects on our health. We still lived in the house for a few years, until the settlement came and we were able to move somewhere else (clearly, you can’t sell your house in a neighborhood about to be closed off to humanity).  My brother, 2 cousins, and I were all given rather generous annuities to be recieved on our birthdays ages 18-21, amount depending on years lived there. I still have dreams sometimes about walking around in what became, for the last year that we lived there, a ghost town. I can’t imagine what it looks like now, it’s been surrounded by a tall fence for years.

. . . Though it was an odd time, it was by no means the great hardship for us that it was for many people. The biggest issues we had were that we had no neighbors, and relied on scores of gallon jugs, refilled at my uncle’s house from the water hose, to keep a supply of potable water. And at the time, wandering about a deserted neighborhood was, to my imagination, a great adventure.

Photo of fence surrounding former Brio Superfund Site: Scott Head [license]

28 Comment

  • Better Living Through Chemistry!

  • My heart breaks for you, Maritza, and your family. This situation should never happen.

  • I lived in nearby Sagemont and remember that area well. A good friend and her family lived in a nice home there, and then suddenly, they had to move. Those houses sat boarded up and vacant for many years. It was truly something.

  • There are other problem areas but none which have violated any EPA standards to the level that this area did. One reason to pay more to live “inside the loop” is the lack of any industrial use of the land through the years that has been covered up although of course there are some areas in the Heights apparently that would cause some to wonder what was lurking beneath the nice green grass.

    EPA standards. The standard for toxic mold remediation which the city uses with regards to complaints against landlords is that it must cover a 25 square foot contigous area. The Health Department isn’t going to force a landlord to remove walls so they are merely “asked” to remediate the obvious problem areas. Despite the fact the toxic mold remains hidden behind the walls and merely hasn’t “seeped through” yet. Although the mold spores do.

    The EPA covered the “affected land” with several feet of concrete and declared it “remediated” although of course no one will ever be allowed to live or work there again. The EPA also declared the area “contained” but some do question that and wonder how much of the contamination has been spread through the area through the water table.

    Welcome to Houston. Where the oil and chemical industries rule.

  • I remember driving thru there after most residents, but not all, had moved out. It was surreal to see a relatively new neighborhood turn into a ghost town. I remember seeing several stray cats and thinking to myself that I guess people had to leave their pets.

  • Houston Proud… It’s Worth It!

  • I recall the mess well, in fact I had an accounting professor who lived there, had his house paid off, then rented it out, as I recall I did not do well in his course. Now to get the hate mail, the Brio site was open pits filled with sludge, I wonder how anyone makes the largest investment of their life without a drive or walk about.

  • Now to get the hate mail, the Brio site was open pits filled with sludge, I wonder how anyone makes the largest investment of their life without a drive or walk about.
    _______________

    The realtors probably told them they were man-made lakes which would part of a planned park for residents.

  • Oh Wow! I could see subdivisions being lost due to flooding, but never to something like this. Kind of reminds me of the movie Erin Brockovich. Just curious,does anyone know of subdivisions in the Houston area being abandoned because of flooding?

  • The entire Brownwood subdivision in Baytown was condemned due to flooding resulting from subsidence.

  • Matt Mystery, you really haven’t got a clue if you think that suburban soil toxicity is a good reason to live inside the loop. The oldest parts of the city experienced the longest duration of industrial activity prior even to the creation of the EPA, much less even an understanding of what chemical agents were toxic.
    .
    Check out the EPA’s EnviroMapper applet for an account of all known toxic waste sites (you’ll be amazed at the number), and even then bear in mind that that information is far from complete because there’s no telling what kind of crud was being mindlessly dumped on bare earth way back when and never reported.
    .
    The Inner Loop isn’t supplied with well water anymore, so the toxic soils below us fortunately aren’t much of a problem…but that redeeming characteristic is shared by most of the City of Houston. The municipal water supply certainly doesn’t just abruptly stop all at once at the 610 Loop.

  • What year did this happen?

  • We lived in Green Tee. We were 2 miles away from Brio. My mother used to do alot of gardening around our house. We lived there from 1977-1996. She died of a very rare form of Vasculitis that destroyed her kidneys in 1993. I have often wondered where the condition came from. Her syytem started producing too much protein which shut her kidneys down. I still remember when the men in white suits were walking around and cleaning up the site. I remeber how bad it stunk driving by the old smoke stack over there. The doctor did not know if it was environmental or some other cause. I felt so bad for the people that were affected in South Bend as well as San Jac being built right there across from that mess. I would like to know if any other prople from my old neighborhood suffered from any kidney related illnesses.

  • By the way, in reference to the comments above regarding containment…..July , 1979 the entire area was completely underwater for several days thanks to a historic flood!

  • I also lived in this neiborhood with my family. I was very young and i have two older brothers and i remeber that place always smelt bad and remeber playing outside and seeing people walking around taking samples. Now it is like a ghost town and the houses are all boarded up i went there bout 5 years ago and we went to out old house it was still boarded up and we wanted to go inside but we didnt. But we did get a nice chunk of change to pay for college and retirement. Get the money on our birthdays and every month.

  • I grew up in the neighborhood just off of 45 and Dixie Farm Rd. I am now 33 and just found out that I have a rare reproductive anomaly. The condition is set into place during early stages of development in my mothers womb. I basically was born with only half of my reproductive organs. Not far from what some of the children that were born to mothers living in that neighborhood during pregnancy!! It makes me sick to think about it!!

  • I used to live in Heritage Park, right on the other side of FM 2351. When I was younger I used to go with my mom over there to clean houses. I saw when the school closed and slowly people started moving out. I remember one of my moms clients crying because she had just bought her home and put alot of money into remodeling and upgrading and she was just devastated when she found out about the contamination. It’s just so sad to have to see all these people have to leave their homes.

  • I used to live out in Southbend as well. I was maybe 6 or 7 when my family moved there as well. I think the address was 1206 South Autumn St. The school was called Weber Elementary and shut down after 2 years. Then we were all bussed to Brookwood Elementary and then Wedgewood Elementary the next year. I remember moving out after the summer of 1993 and most of the houses were already boarded up. It was surreal riding bikes through the neighborhood with whatever friends I had left and just seeing so many abandoned houses. It was also weird to look outside my bedroom window and see the public pool being bulldozed. I still remember using the dive board at that pool when it was active and full of neighborhood kids.

  • I was born in this neighborhood, although I do not remember living there. I’m told we lived on the far edges of the community and that we never drank the water once we knew about the contamination. But many of those chemicals can be vaporized or absorbed through the skin. Around puberty I started having all kinds of vague health complaints and ten years later, at 22, I was diagnosed with several autoimmune diseases. TCE has been linked to autoimmunity in several toxic waste studies and I am certain my time at Southbend is responsible for my illness today. The settlement money was nice, but it can’t get me back all of the things I have lost since falling ill. I am interested in speaking to anyone else from Southbend with any kind of health complaint, if anyone happens upon this. My story is here: http://xinalynn.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/my-experience-with-autoimmunity/ and I would love to hear anyone else’s.

  • I lived down the street in Scarsdale. I remember it used to flood there all the time and most surely the toxins from Brio were in the water there. I played in the water too, catching crawfish in the flooded waters (it used to come up to the door sill of my parents house). It is surely the reason that when I was 18 I was diagnosed with Thyroid cancer and have had health problems all of my life.

  • I lived in Southbend from 1983-1995. I was diagnosed with gout a few years ago, and thought it could be related to kidney disease from living there. I lived on South Oak Court. We had the biggest Vietnamese family in the neighborhood. My father was diagnosed with liver disease recently, mother has migraines, few nieces had defects, but overall we were lucky. Hopefully we dont develop anything serious in the future. Sorry to hear all of the health problems on this forum. Hope you get well. I remember going to Weber Elementary, playing in the flooded streets, playing in the baseball field near the site, swimming in the public pool…I’m gonna pray for the future health of all who lived there. Peace and love.

  • M. Le, impairment of liver function is less consistent with the symptoms of people that were exposed to the Brio site, and more consistent with symptoms of people with dioxin exposure…such as from Agent Orange. And yes, the effects can be passed to offspring.

    You might consider doing some research regarding your family history and cross-referencing your parents’ locations and activities during the war with Agent Orange spray maps to determine if this is especially likely.

    There has been compensation (albeit not very much) for U.S. citizens that have conditions that are reasonably presumed to have been the consequence of Agent Orange exposure…but I don’t know if your family might be eligible as viet kieu. You’d have to do some research on that issue, too, to find out.

  • TheNiche, my parents are from Hue which is central Vietnam. Agent orange was primarily used in South Vietnam, so I’m pretty sure they were not exposed to it. Birth defects and cancer were occurring at a high rate in our BRIO neighborhood, which most likely was due to exposure to those toxic chemicals. I researched Agent Orange years ago, and those photos of people exposed were pretty horrific. Who really knows what ailments and symptoms can occur after exposure to toxic chemicals? I just hope for the best for me and my family.

  • Hue city was spared, but Hue-Thua Thien Province had something crazy like 50% or 60% coverage by land area. Most of the province is a single interconnected watershed, so in terms of the percent of the land area of the watershed that was affected, its about as bad as anywhere else in Vietnam. There are also issues with dioxin hotspots anywhere that there had been a military installation (and other contaminants, too).

    If you’re wondering…my girlfriend’s father’s family is from a village near Hue, so I go there a lot, know the lay of the land, and am reasonably familiar with its recent history.

  • I lived off scarsdale blvd in the sageglen subdivision. I attended weber elementary from 1982 to 1985, my brother and sister attended longer. I remember the houses all boarded up…it was sad when the area including the school were torn down. Years later i hopped the gate(which im sure i shouldnt have done) and walked down what were barely discernable streets, overgrown with vegetation. It was like walking through a nuclear fall out area.
    I was glad to see that they have rebuilt weber elementary, now located off of blackhawk.

  • I grew up in this neighborhood as well. The first time we rented a home in the early 80′s and then my parents bought a home in the late 80′s. I still remember the address, 11614 South Arbor. We lived there until about a year after they shut down our school Weber Elementary.I remember right before we were forced to ride a bus to clear lake, we made a time capsule in P.E. They said they were going to bury it,I wonder if they did. My brother and I both wonder where our health will go in the next 5 to 10 years. So far, in the past 5 years,I have become allergic to so much.I can’t be around animals,I have eczema( severe at times where my skin breaks open and bleeds), we both have asthma, both are lactose intolerant as well. I’ve had my tonsils removed and my gallbladder.I can’t say for certain if any of this is related, but I’m pretty sure I will go the rest of my life always wondering if negative health problems are related to the brio superfund site.I feel for anyone who has lived here and my heart goes out to those fighting serious illnesses.

  • Finding this hit me hard. I was actually born in the neighborhood in December 1987. I am now researching documents trying to understand it more to address me and my families health issues. My mom died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 and I wonder every day how much the pollutants led to her death. I myself have bad asthma and was born with a chest defect that caused me years of pain. I would love to chat more to hear about your experience.

  • I commented earlier, but wanted to add that there is now a Facebook group called “Brio Superfund Site” for sharing info about, experiences with, and health problems because of Brio. You can find the group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/416887771774604/