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Wed Oct 18 12:44:44 EST 2000
>From The Oregonian, Oct. 15, 2000, p C1
Like the mold, a homeowner's dispute with city grows
By Margie Boule
Nobody lives int he small white house on Unander Street in
Vancouver, Wash. There are curtains at the windows and furniture in the
rooms. There are children's drawings displayed, clothing in the closets,
dishes in the cupboards.
But it's what you can't see that makes this pleasant, benign-looking
house so controversial, and perhaps dangerous. Within the walls, beneath
the floors, behind the wallpaper, there is a black mold growing, a mold
that medical experts call "highly toxic." Its scientific name is
The city of Vancouver says the house is save to live in. But Molly
Atwood, who owns the house, believes it is not.
The city of Vancouver says it is not responsible for the damp
conditions that have been so habitatble to toxic mld. Molly Atwood
believes her house would be mold-free, and her family would be helahty
today, if the city of Vancouver hadn't acted negligently.
The city cites its experts; Molly cites hers.
Until the question is resolved, Molly, her father and her three
children are homeless. Still, every month Molly pays mortgage and taxes
on a house she never wants to set foot in again.
In November 1996, the city of Vancouver was widening Fruit Valley
Road. But the road crew had not created proper drainage; during a storm,
water from the road was diverted onto Molly Atwood's property. "I heard
this loud, terrible noise," Molly says. "It sounded like Multnomah Falls.
I went outside and it looked like a river was running into my basement."
Molly called 9-1-1, and city workers pumped 8 feet of water from
The city admitted blame, said it would fix the drainage problem and
replaced Molly's furniture aqnd the hot water heater. "Buit they didn't
replace any insulation," says MOlly. And they didn't dry out dirt that
sat in part of the old basement.
One year later, it happened again. Molly was pregnant with her third
child, running up and down the basement stairs trying to salvage personal
items from her basement. "This time the city had double pumps. They
drained 8 feet of water in three hours," which Molly says caused her
foundation to crack.
After the second flood, Molly says, she and her family began to get
sick. "My son started having a speech delay. Then he developed tremors
that had neurological problems." Developmentally, Molly says, her son was
regressing. "He had bronchitis all the time and was throwing up in the
middle of the night from coughing so much. He had asthma. It was weird.
He hadn't had problems before. THen the same thing started with my
In August 1998, Molly and her neighbors got letters from the Port of
Vancouver, warning there could be neighborhood contamination by TCE, an
industrial solvent. Molly worried that hte floods may have carried TCE
into her home, making her family sick.
She contacted the SOuthwest Washington Health Department. "The man
said he thought hte childrne's health problems might be caused by mold."
His report reads, "I told them I suspected a mold problem."
In fact, Molly had recently seen a mold on a wall and had used
bleach to remove it. Molly contacted city adjuster Jack Schneider, from
the McLarens Toplis insurance agency, who came to her home, saw mold
growing and sent a professional cleaning service. "They painted," says
Molly, "but the dirt in my basement had been moist since the flood. THey
didn't remove it."
Molly says she was being pressured by Schneider to sign papers that
released the city from any further responsibility for damage. Molly
refused to sign. THere was damage to her foundation, and her children
were getting sicker.
Last December, Molly decided to redecorate her father's bedroom. "I
pulled the wallpaper off, and it looked like someboy had painted the wall
black underneath." It was mold. Molly called the health department and
was told to clean the wall with a 10 percent bleach solution. SHe did.
It wasn't until last spring that Molly began to believe her home was
dangerous. A segment on the CBS program "48 Hours" told of a family that
had left their home with only the clothes on their backs, because of a
mold called Stachybotrys chartarum. The mold had caused father and son
brain damage. Other symptoms -- headaches, nosebleeds, chronic
bronchitis, tremors, asthma -- sounded like the problems Molly and her
family were experiencing.
Molly jumped on the Internet and was frightened by what she read.
She says she spoke to a cty manager in the psring, who has since left his
position, who denied the flooding could have caused mold growth in her
home. She says Jack Schneider, city claims adjuster, also expressed
disbelief. "So I threw a fuss," Molly says. The city hired an indistrual
hygiene consultant to do testing. Molly says she was told she'd receive
the test results "within two weeks. I waited, but I never go them."
She called Jack Schneider, "but his phone had been disconnected and
his e-mail address didn't work." She left messages with the city.
"Finally, Jack called me. He said my house was totally fine. He said,
'You have no mold in your house.'" Molly says Jack told her he would not
gie her the test results on her house "because I wouldn't give him
Jack Schneider could not be reached for comment Friday.
Molly decided she could not trust the city, and she had to get her
family out of the house. But Molly lies off disaibility payments; she
couldn't afford to continue making mortgage and tax payments and pay rent
elsewhere. So she, her father and her three children moved into her
sister's house in June. "I felt devastated," she says. "I walked away
from everything. All the kids' pictures and keepsakes. If we took
anything, it could infect the next place we lived."
The city believes Molly had no need to leave her home. It released
its test results to KVAN radio reporter Gavin Dawson last month. The
tests showed the presence of three toxic molds, none of htem as
danagerous as Stachybotrys chartarum. "I had an extensive conversation
with the expert we hired to go in and do testing," says Terry Weiner,
assistant city attorney, "and she assured me that the living quarters
were safe to inhabit. But not the basement, because of the mold found
there on a piece of wood that had not been there during the flooding. It
was not Stachybotrys."
According to Terry Weiner, the city believes mold grew in Molly's
house not becuase of the two fllods, but becuase the house is damp.
"There was a problem with the crawl space, not what I think was our
problem, but hers. It's not sealed. It's a dirt floor. She's in an area
with a high water table, so there is probably moisture coming up through
the crawl space dirt."
Molly says the dirt in her basement never was damp before the
floods. THe Oregonian has learned that neighbors have no mold in their
homes. And an inspection report Molly got when she bought the house
indicates the house never had flooded before, nor had there been moisture
or mold problems in the past.
Molly says that after the road was widened her yard became damp all
the time. Terry Weiner says he was not aware Molly's property was dry
before the road work.
When Molly couldn't get the city's lab results, she decided to get
her own. She learned of a reputable lab in Seattle; Molly drove samples
to the lab herself. The lab found Stachybotrys chartarum.
Molly believed that now the city would make things right. But the
city did not accept the new findings.
So Molly went public, and not in a timid way. Molly carried a sign
that said, "I believe the city of Vancouver is killing my children" when
Gov. Gary Locke held a forum in Vancouver last month. She got the
attention of Gavin Dawson of KVAN radio and public access TV reporter
Michaela Cotter, both of whom aired reports last month.
Michaela accompanied Molly to the house, where they pulled pieces of
insulation from the basement ceiling. The insulation was delivered to
Coffey Laboratories Inc. in Portland two weeks ago.
Dr. Fred Colley, a microbiologist, found Stachybotrys chartarum. "I
had not seen it before," he says, "and I do a lot of environmental molds.
Just to make sure, I sent a sample to a lab in Arizona that specializes
in mold identification, and they confirmed my diagnosis. So it is
On Friday, Terry Weiner said the latest test results are "new
information to me. I'd like to get the results of that and talk to the
woman (who did our) testing."
Still, the city wants proof the mold appeared becuase of the city-
caused floods. "The problem, as I understand it," says Terry Weiner, "is
that she's got a bad combination of high water table and a basement that
problabely... was not sealed as tightly as it should be." There are mold
spores everywhere, Terry says, "and she has the right combination for
mold to grow."
Terry says the city also is concerned that Molly never has given
them proof of her family's medical problems. Molly says she doesn't trust
the city, and doesn't want to turn over private medical records.
There is stands. Molly wants the city to admit responsibility and
cover her losses. The city believes Molly's house has mold becuase it's
damp, and not because of the flooding. It says it has reimbursed Molly
for items lost in the floods, has paid for two cleanups and testing and
believes it is not responsible for anything more.
Molly, protective of her family, angry that so many politicans have
promised to help and then never followed through, is making as much noise
as she can. She's picketed, she's called reporters, she's written letter
Just two weeks ago, she worte a long letter to Royce Pollard, mayor
of Vancouver. In it, she defended her claims and asked for help. She also
invited the mayor and his family to dinner in her now-abandoned home. "I
am an excellent cook," she wrote. "However, I will be wearing protective
Molly may never be able to prove her claims. But she's fighting for
her children, she says, and she won't quit.As she wrote at the end of her
letter to the mayor, "I am like the mold. No matter how hard you try, I
won't go away."
Posted as a courtesy by:
Daniel B. Wheeler
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