Why has everyone abandoned the residents of Whispering Pines trailer park?
The hand-painted sign on the front door of Sandi Shum's mobile home reads, "This house protected by angels." If that's the case, heaven's little helpers are flying solo on this mission.
Shum, 50, lives alone in her trailer in a wooded corner of Whispering Pines, a small mobile home park on Route 103 in North Clarendon. Shum, a former machinist in Rutland, was injured on the job in 1991 when part of a jet engine she was assembling severed her wrist. She underwent reconstructive surgery but has been permanently disabled ever since.
Shum moved into Whispering Pines in 1995 because, like many of the park's residents, it was the only housing she could afford. Her 40-year-old trailer isn't much to look at from the outside, but Shum has done her best to make the interior feel warm and homey.
That's no easy task in a house that frequently stinks of mold, mildew and swamp gas. Several years ago, a tree limb fell through her roof. Today, the ceiling along the trailer's westerly wall is a veritable roadmap of water stains. She's had to jury-rig a brace to hold up the ceiling. Meanwhile, the backside of the trailer sags due to the soggy, uneven ground. Apparently Whispering Pines, which opened in 1974, was built on a combination of wetlands and landfill.
Shum has an afternoon's worth of horror stories about other problems at the park. She has photos dating back to the winter of 1995, when icy pools of septic water formed in her backyard and beneath her trailer. In the summer of 1996, she stood up from a lawn chair and sank knee-deep into a sinkhole. In 1997, raw sewage backed up into her bathtub and ran down the hall. Even after the house was cleaned, the sewer gases venting into her trailer were so noxious, she had to move into a nearby hotel for more than a year. Only later did she learn that a perforated sewer pipe from a neighboring trailer ran right under her living room. "It's been one nightmare after another," she says, choking back tears.
Other Whispering Pines residents have had similar troubles. For years, tenants have complained to anyone who would listen about electrical brownouts, water outages, unfilled potholes and sinking lots. One of their biggest concerns, they say, is their water. Oftentimes it smells foul, with sediment that clogs their toilets and ruins their washing machines. Chlorine levels fluctuate between nonexistent to overpowering.
Complicating the picture is the fact that the park's owner, J.P. Carrara and Sons, also owns a neighboring dolomite quarry, which, until last year, was routinely using explosives to extract rock. Besides the nuisances created by the blasting, some neighbors charge that all these seismic disturbances have damaged their trailers, water pipes and septic lines.
Of greater concern, residents say, is the possibility that the quarry operation is doing further harm to the park's already compromised groundwater. In 1990, leaking underground storage tanks were discovered at a nearby Honda dealership and general store, which contaminated the aquifer with the petroleum additive MTBE. Even at low concentrations, MTBE makes water smell and taste like turpentine. At higher concentrations, MTBE is suspected to cause a number of health problems, though its toxicity to humans is unknown. This in a town where, since 2003, residents have been concerned about unusually high rates of leukemia and other cancer.
Since 1990, the state of Vermont has been providing the residents of Whispering Pines free bottled water and operating its water-filtration system - at an estimated cost of $1 million to date. But despite continuing problems, the state has never declared the water unsafe to drink. Residents continue to use it for cleaning, bathing and washing dishes.
If Vermont had a "Lemon Law" to cover mobile home parks, Whispering Pines would be a shoo-in. "We're getting to the point where enough is enough," says Mike Klopchin, chairman of the Clarendon Select Board and its longest-serving member. "I'm a Vietnam veteran and I can tell you this: I've seen better living conditions in poor parts of Vietnam than exist in that trailer park."
Admittedly, many of the problems at Whispering Pines are classic landlord-tenant disputes that might have been resolved years ago through litigation. However, nearly all the residents of the park are low- or moderate-income people who say they have neither the time nor the money to spend battling their wealthy landlord in court. Instead, since August 2005 most of the tenants who haven't already moved - that is, five of the nine remaining - have been withholding their rent. Instead, they're paying into an escrow account.
Repeated phone calls to J.P. Carrara and Sons for its side of this story were not returned. As one longtime resident of Clarendon noted, the Carraras rarely, if ever, comment for news stories about Whispering Pines.
Frustrations don't lie solely with the Carraras, according to the residents who agreed to talk to Seven Days, but also with the various state agencies they feel have abandoned them. Public records dating back to 1995, when the Carraras bought the park, show that state officials have long been aware of resident grievances and repeatedly cited the park's owner for water-quality violations. Nevertheless, the tenants contend that no one at the state level has ever taken a thorough and comprehensive look at their problems and tried to find a long-lasting solution.
All of which raises some troubling questions: In a state that touts its reputation for strict environmental and consumer-protection laws, how could such serious problems be allowed to fester for so long? What does it say about Vermont's commitment to affordable housing when one of its most affordable housing options - mobile home parks - seem to lack effective governmental oversight and enforcement to keep them safe and habitable? In short, who's supposed to be looking out for the residents of Whispering Pines?
Unfortunately, it's much easier to point fingers than to find satisfactory answers. Even the small number of tenants who still live in Whispering Pines can't agree on the best solution for everyone involved. Some say they want the state to declare the park uninhabitable, shut it down and pay to move its residents elsewhere. Others say they're perfectly content with the park the way it is. Still others are willing to stay put, as long as the Carraras agree to fix maintenance problems as soon as they arise. Because of their differences, relations among the residents are sometimes as strained as those between the tenants and their landlord.
One resident who doesn't want to leave is Martha Lajoie. The 69-year-old has lived in Whispering Pines longer than anyone. She runs a business-management company out of her home and also cares for her 2-year-old great-grandson, of whom she has custody. Lajoie is the archetypal sweet old lady - friendly, polite, impeccably dressed and seemingly averse to complaining about anything to anyone. As she puts it, "I'm not the coffee-klatch type. I kind of stick to myself."
Lajoie says she can't afford the $30,000 it would cost to move her 32-year-old trailer - assuming it could be moved at all. Nevertheless, she's been withholding her rent in solidarity with her neighbors. "I don't want to feel like I'm deserting the ship," she says. "At this point, I just don't know what to do."
Lajoie says she joined the recent rent boycott because she'd endured "very serious problems" with her septic system that went unaddressed for far too long. Back in the 1970s, she and her now-deceased husband, Richard, were among a group of residents who withheld rent from the previous owner due to ongoing sewer problems. The tenants eventually won a court case against that landlord, though he later skipped the country.
Several years ago, Lajoie had raw sewage back up into her trailer and destroy her carpet, which she paid to replace. A plumber told her the troubles were due to the landlord's faulty septic system, not her plumbing. Lajoie sent the Carraras a certified letter to that effect, which, she claims, they never answered. For more than a year, Lajoie couldn't flush solids down her toilet and had to remove them each day with a bucket and pail.
"There's always been problems here," says Lajoie. "They say that the blasting doesn't do it, but I don't think I'm buying that. When this place goes shake, rattle and roll, don't tell me the pipes underground aren't shaking, rattling and rolling with it."
Eventually, the Carraras fixed Lajoie's pipes. Today, she says her only outstanding issue with the landlord is the quality of her water - a test done several weeks ago found coliform bacteria in her house. It came as a something of a surprise, since the park's water was found to be malfunctioning back in August. As of last week, residents said the chlorine problem still hadn't been fixed.
"Everybody here has gone through hot water tanks because of the hard water. I can live with that," Lajoie says. "What I can't live with is not knowing whether I should be bathing my babies in this water."
Lajoie's water issue is hardly an isolated incident. Records from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation show that between 1995 and 2004, the Water Supply Division documented at least 37 water-quality violations at Whispering Pines. They ranged from failures to file monthly reports to not notifying the residents that they needed to boil their water due to dangerous bacteria levels. Nevertheless, the DEC has never imposed tough fines on the Carraras or referred this case to the attorney general's office for further legal action.
It's unlikely the DEC ever will. That's because, as of December 2004, there were fewer than 10 hook-ups, or 25 residents, living in the park. As a result, Whispering Pines now falls below the DEC's regulatory threshold and has been "de-listed" as a public water system. In effect, because two residents moved out, the state can no longer guarantee the safety of the water.
Tim Raymond is the water systems manager for the DEC's Water Supply Division. Raymond is familiar with residents' concerns at Whispering Pines; he's dealt with them for years and says he's not surprised the place still has "operational difficulties."
Raymond says it's "not typical" for a mobile home park to rack up that many water-quality violations, even over an eight-year period. However, he says that most of the problems didn't threaten the health of residents.
"From my perspective, you need to make a distinction between a public-health risk - meaning the water you're receiving can't be utilized because it's unsafe - and the operational complications of the system that are truly driving you crazy," he says. Basically, the problems in Whispering Pines are due to the water equipment and the people who operate it, he explains, not problems with the water supply itself.
Raymond also points out that the state is still involved, to an extent. It operates the park's air stripper, the water-filtration system that removes MTBE from the water before it reaches the residents. That equipment is paid for and maintained by the state's Petroleum Cleanup Fund. Whispering Pines, Raymond asserts, has seen "significant improvements" in its water quality as a result of the DEC's involvement.
"Even though the state may be disappointing to some people, the state is still active there and still operating that local water system," he adds. "Because it's the state's treatment system, the state is going to make sure that treatment system is reliable and safe."
As for the erratic chlorine levels, Raymond says that's no longer the state's job to oversee. That responsibility, he says, now belongs to the park's owner - J.P. Carrara and Sons.
"I think most of the state's officials are asses," Kevin Callahan says with the bluntness of someone who's spent years trying to get government officials to pay attention to his concerns.
Callahan's frustration is understandable. In 1998, he and his wife Carol, then both 25, moved into Whispering Pines. The following year, they bought a brand-new mobile home. Carol works in the elementary school cafeteria in Clarendon; Kevin is currently receiving Workers' Compensation due to an injury he suffered working at a local propane company. The couple shares a mobile home with their two children.
Like other park residents, the Callahans have had their share of troubles with the water and wastewater. During their first summer in Whispering Pines, they went days without water when the park's well ran dry. Since then, they've had water that smells "like a swamp"; other days the chlorine level is strong enough to bleach their clothes. Then, in 2000, the family's septic problems began in earnest.
"I could flush my toilet and have a geyser in my front yard," Kevin Callahan recalls. After repeated complaints to the landlord went unattended - video of their septic woes even made the local TV news in 2003 - Callahan says he called the state, which sent a truck to his home to inspect the problem.
"This guy came out and stuck a stick in it, smelled it and said, 'Yup, that's the sewer,'" Callahan recalls. "Then, he and his buddy got back in the truck, drove away and we never heard from them again."
Far more disconcerting to the Callahans have been their health problems, which they fear may be due to the park's persistent problems. These include asthma, rashes, cysts, endometriosis and other unexplained illnesses.
"It's funny," Carol Callahan says. "If you leave here for a couple of days, you feel fantastic. And then when you come back, it's kind of like having a cold, but at the same time it's like you're depressed."
Ironically, she doesn't blame the Carraras entirely for their troubles. "I'm not saying I agree with everything the landlord has done," Carol Callahan says. "But I don't think it's fair to always put the fault on him.
"My opinion? I think the state should close this park," she adds. "It's old, it's outlived its life, you've got contamination on one side and a quarry on the other side. No matter what that man [Carrara] does, it's always going to have problems."
The Callahans' situation improved significantly when Clarendon Public Health Officer Roxanne Phelps got involved. Appointed to her post in 2003, Phelps became interested in Whispering Pines after hearing reports that children in the park were suffering from respiratory problems such as lung infections, asthma and persistent colds. In August 2005, Phelps and fellow health officer Chuck Davis inspected the park and identified 12 health and safety violations, some of which Phelps called "life-threatening."
Within 48 hours, Phelps arranged a meeting with the Carraras, the tenants and the DEC to get those problems fixed. At one point during the meeting, the Carraras' attorney insisted that the park's water was safe. So Phelps handed him a glass of water from the Callahans' tap and asked him to drink it. He refused. For the residents of Whispering Pines, it was a scene right out of the movie Erin Brockovich.
That said, there's only so much that a part-time town health officer can do on a limited budget. Those familiar with the case say it's going to take a lot more firepower to get the residents' problems resolved.
"Just find me a brick wall and I'll bang my head against it until the blood comes out, and maybe somebody will pay attention. That's how these people feel," says Annette Smith of the nonprofit group Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE). "I don't know what the answer is, but clearly, it's not state government."
Smith is an environmental activist who's been working with the tenants of Whispering Pines since 2003. Her involvement with this case is extensive; most recently, she's been helping them fight an Act 250 permit request by J.P. Carrara and Sons to deepen their quarry by another 105 feet.
The quarry, Smith contends, is "an immensely complicating factor" in the problems plaguing the park. According to court papers filed by VCE, J.P. Carrara and Sons has a history of ignoring state environmental regulations that dates back to the mid-1980s. Back then, the proposed quarry site was an important deer habitat that was illegally clear-cut, in violation of Act 250, VCE contends. Vermont Fish and Wildlife opposed the quarry's land-use permit, but it was eventually granted after the company agreed to set aside another parcel of deer habitat eight miles away.
As early as 1994 Smith says that neighbors suspected the quarry's blasting was causing damage to the aquifer - that year, one neighbor's well ran dry - and potentially making the MTBE contamination worse. Those problems persist to this day, Smith says - though it's worth noting that the quarry has not been operating for the last year due in part to the neighbor's concerns.
Then why in the course of Act 250 hearings last spring would an attorney for the Agency of Natural Resources ask to throw out of evidence the entire history of water-supply violations by J.P. Carrara and Sons? His argument: Those were landlord-tenant matters that had nothing to do with the pending permit request.
"The reality is, you've got a contaminated aquifer, you've got a clear interconnection between the quarry and the aquifer, you don't know where the MTBE is except there could be pockets of it spread all around," Smith says, "and the state has no problem with this."
In fact, residents learned this May that the air stripper, which is supposed to protect them from MTBE exposure, hadn't been working properly since January. In Smith's view, that means the residents were potentially exposed to dangerous levels of MTBE for at least four months.
Not so, says Bob Haslam, environmental analyst with the DEC's Waste Management Division. As Haslam explains, the MTBE "overwhelmed the system temporarily and a tiny amount got through. . . Every now and then you get these anomalous spikes. It's just the nature of the beast."
Haslam insists the residents were never at any risk. As he puts it, "This treatment system is very, very reliable. It's a well-established technology."
Not according to Stan Alpert, the New York City attorney who represents VCE pro bono on the Carraras' Act 250 case. Alpert is a former federal prosecutor who's sued the oil industry for MTBE contamination in other states. According to him, the technology currently being used to protect the residents of Whispering Pines is woefully inadequate to protect their health. In his opinion, "Something is seriously wrong in the state of Vermont if regulators are allowing people to drink and bathe in water that looks and smells like that."
After Clarendon spent more than $5000 on a public health officer to work on Whispering Pines, and with tenants still not paying their rent to the Carraras, the town asked Vermont's attorney general to intervene.
Assistant Attorney General Wendy Morgan is handling the case. After conversations with the residents, the Carraras' attorney and the various state agencies, Morgan determined that the current problems at Whispering Pines "don't rise to the level of violations that would cause us to bring a court action or close the park."
Morgan explains that she only looked at current conditions in the park, not past complaints or violations. Although she recognizes that landlord-tenant issues still need to be resolved, it's her belief that there are none outstanding that compromise public safety or habitability . As such, she says, the residents no longer have reason to withhold their rent.
"The residents are frustrated, and I don't blame anybody for being frustrated," she says. "The question for us is, what are we trying to achieve here? If what we're trying to achieve is safe and habitable housing for low- and moderate-income people, then what happened in the past shouldn't be ignored, but it's not going to cause us to bring an action."
It's unclear how the troubles at Whispering Pines will ever be resolved. The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity has a mobile home advocacy project, but it cannot bring legal action, only advise tenants of their rights.
The Rutland County Community Land Trust has looked into creating another mobile home park in the area to accommodate Whispering Pines residents. However, two other local parks recently closed, giving those residents first priority. Community Development Block Grants sometimes can be used to help relocate trailer park residents. But an application filed for Whispering Pines was denied, since the park's owner has never filed a notice for closure. As Smith puts it, "This case brings you head-on into the real problem of low-income housing in Vermont."
These days, she isn't optimistic. If the quarry were closed, if a new and safe water supply were found and if the current infrastructure problems were fixed, perhaps Whispering Pines could be saved. But that's a lot of ifs, Smith says, and, based on the Carraras' track record, she's not holding her breath.
Meanwhile, a ruling on the Act 250 permit request to expand the quarry is expected any day. If it's approved, the quarry will likely resume blasting as soon as possible. Sandi Shum says she's hoping her trailer makes it through the winter.