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Tenants Score in Fight Over Water Quality

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Published September 8, 2005 at 2:06 p.m.

CLARENDON -- A slower-motion and smaller-scale version of the New Orleans disaster continues to beset residents of a soggy, shaken and possibly poisoned trailer park in Clarendon.

Tenants of the Whispering Pines mobile home park, situated near the Rutland State Airport, have refused to succumb, however, and they recently wrested pledges from their landlord to address many of their grievances. Most of the 25 residents are backing up their demands by withholding their $185 monthly rent payments.

Town health officials and an environmental advocacy group have joined in pressing the park's owner, J.P. Carrara & Sons, to make a range of improvements in the park. Activists experienced in these types of housing issues say it is unusual for town officials to intervene so effectively against a locally powerful company such as Carrara.

All manner of water-related problems have plagued Whispering Pines for the past 15 years. Leaks from underground fuel storage tanks contaminated residents' drinking water for an unknown period until the seepage was discovered in 1990. Water pressure dropped so low in the mid-'90s that a shower in one trailer might slow to a drip if someone in a neighboring trailer flushed the toilet. That was also around the time when sewage from a backed-up septic system began eddying into pools in residents' yards, recalls Whispering Pines tenant Sandy Shum.

In 2001, Shum relates, scalding and smoking water came gushing out of her kitchen tap -- probably because chemicals in the pipes had somehow ignited, she suggests. More recently, some trailers have suffered structural damage from ground-shaking explosions at an adjoining quarry also owned by Carrara, a Middlebury stone-working firm. In some residents' opinion, the blasts may also be to blame for the foul odor and occasional discoloration of their drinking water.

In keeping with the biblical proportions of the park's problems, sinkholes have opened in some driveways and backyards. Late last month, Clarendon town officials on an inspection tour of Whispering Pines discovered 12 health-code violations.

Conditions in the park had become so intolerable that residents tried to move away en masse last year. But the Douglas Administration turned down Clarendon's request for funds to cover relocation expenses.

Even so, the number of homes in the park has dropped from 18 to nine in the past few years. Some residents moved their trailers to less frightening locales. Others died, including two cancer victims who, according to Shum, had kept drinking water from the wells at Whispering Pines.

Carol Callahan, a 7-year park resident and mother of two children, says the high attrition rate is the product of a strategy on Carrara's part. Besides driving away the park's tenants, Callahan says, Carrara has been buying up other homes near the quarry site -- all in an attempt to mute protests against its operation and planned expansion of the quarry.

But Carrara's move to extract more dolomite from its Clarendon pit has provided Whispering Pines tenants leverage in their battle with the landlord.

The regional Environmental Commission recently attached stringent conditions to an Act 250 permit Carrara had sought in order to deepen its quarry from 70 feet to 175 feet. The company will now be required to install a sediment-filtration system and new water piping at the park. The commission also put the burden of proof in future disputes with park tenants squarely on Carrara. The firm must henceforth show that any water problems or structural damage at Whispering Pines are not the result of its quarrying activities. Carrara is also promising to correct all health-code violations cited by Clarendon officials.

Tenants are hopeful that these moves will help make the park safer and healthier. "But we intend to closely monitor Carrara's actions to make sure the requirements are met," says Clarendon town health officer Roxanne Phelps.

Along with fellow health inspector Chuck Davis, Phelps is described by an environmental activist as "the hero of this story." The two officials have been willing to take on a locally powerful company on behalf of residents whose voices often go unheard, says Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

At a recent meeting in Clarendon's town hall, Phelps confronted a Carrara attorney with a container of water that had just been drawn from a Whispering Pines trailer's kitchen tap. Phelps asked the lawyer to drink the smelly liquid. He declined her offer.

Phelps says she is trying hard to help the tenants because "this is a very small community, and if people don't see Chuck and me working to help our neighbors, they're going to look at us and wonder what we're doing."

It's been a difficult fight, adds Smith. "Citizens in this neighborhood are so completely disadvantaged," says the head of the Danby-based group, which has been battling state officials over what it maintains is their failure to enforce environmental laws at Whispering Pines. "These are low-income people dealing with a wealthy corporation. The reason things are in such condition at that park is because of 10 years of neglect."

Jay Rutherford, director of the water supply division at the Agency of Natural Resources, says his unit regularly tests the well water at Whispering Pines, and has found it safe to drink. Rutherford concedes, however, "Things can go wrong between the well and the tap." And he says he respects residents' claims about problems with water pressure and quality.

But the state no longer has jurisdiction over the water at Whispering Pines. When the number of hook-ups to wells at a housing development falls below 15, ANR stops enforcing standards covering public water supplies.

Carrara, which bought the park about 10 years ago, has repeatedly ignored complaints about drinking water and septic systems, tenants contend. According to Shum, company officials typically say that it's not their responsibility to police the park, or that if tenants don't like living there, they should move away.

Carrara also did not respond to requests, through the company's attorneys, for comments for this story.