It was supposed to be a dream finally realized when Richard and Susan Gibson bought property at North Ridge Estates northeast of Klamath Falls and built their retirement home.
However, the experience has turned into a nightmare.
The Gibsons are one of several families who still call North Ridge Estates home, even though the second season of a three-year asbestos cleanup project is underway.
Originally the site of a World War II-era military barracks and later the original campus for Oregon Institute of Technology a few miles up Old Fort Road, the first structures were made largely out of asbestos.
A common building material at the time since it didn’t burn easily and provided good insulation, it wouldn’t be until years later that the toxicity of asbestos as a cancer-causing fibrous material if inhaled came to light — the direct cause of mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The area had been purchased by a land developer, Melvin Bercot Kenneth Partnership (MBK), but improper demolition practices by MBK of the old buildings left tons of asbestos buried just beneath the surface rather than being properly disposed.
As the Gibson’s and others built homes on the 171-acre subdivision site, suspicious materials soon began emerging from the ground following spring thaws. By 2001, a year after the couple had invested their life savings to build their dream home, the first signs of asbestos contamination began to show.
After several years of emergency cleanup attempts by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a lawsuit was filed against the land developer in 2006. The resulting funds from that lawsuit allowed most of the residents to vacate their homes, but a few, including the Gibson’s, chose to stay.
A decade of cleanup efforts
“They promised us that the cleanup would be done in two to three years,” said Susan Gibson. “We’re now into year 12, and there’s no end in sight.
"They promised us that they would be able to work around the trees, and now almost all the trees are gone. It looks like a bomb went off.”
The cleanup calls from some 900 trees to be removed from the area, as well as two feet of topsoil to be removed and capped elsewhere at the site.
Unlike many of the North Ridge Estates residents, most of whom were married with kids and had mortgaged properties, the Gibson’s had invested their life-savings into building their home; paying in full for the construction.
Their property is worth a third of what it once was, with no ability to sell the home while the cleanup is underway. The hillside behind their home, now vacant of trees, has been washed away by winter precipitation, piling up debris behind their home and necessitating a retaining wall to be built to prevent further damage.
Whereas most residents were able to relocate from funds allocated from the $14 million lawsuit against MBK, of which the Gibson’s received $28,000 for their share, the couple believed they could endure two years of clean-up work.
As plans were revised, and it became evident that the landscape would be forever altered, it was too late to sell their property, leaving them unable to relocate.
“We are stuck here, we can’t afford to leave,” said Susan Gibson. “We can’t take our equity and go somewhere else, because we can’t sell.”
The once lush forest surrounding their home is now a landscape of stumps, with clear lines of sight to every other property for miles around. They built their home with a hot tub surrounded by trees — now it is an odd protrusion out in the open visible for miles with zero privacy. The loss of the trees is what has hurt the most, according to Gibson, in the entire process.
“They have been very accommodating, they told me they would do the best they could, but that still doesn’t unbreak my heart over losing all of the trees,” said Gibson. “They are doing this the right way, but it’s not according to what we thought we were agreeing to.”
The couple had moved from Arizona seeking property in southern Oregon, hoping to find a quiet home in a private, forested area. What they found at North Ridge Estates was a veritable forest, designing their house to fit perfectly within large legacy pine trees and an abundance of wildlife, they said.
It was to them the perfect home, with trees so thick that almost none of the nearby neighbor’s homes could be seen. Today the landscape looks like a desert, with no wildlife anywhere in sight.
“This was peace and quiet and beauty, the trees were a buffer,” said Susan Gibson. “I cry every day. I’m a tough lady, but this has broken me. It is devastating. Coming back here every day is torture. Everybody has been so kind, but it still hurts, it has been like a death in the family.”
In 2011, the subdivision was declared a Superfund site, a designation establishing it as a national priority for cleanup due to severe contamination. It is estimated to cost $35 million to clean the site over the course of a three-year process, scheduled to be completed next year, but all those dollars spent cleaning up the area doesn’t make up for the losses felt both financially and emotionally by those few left behind still calling North Ridge Estates home.
Residents on-site are being temporarily relocated while their property is cleaned. For the Gibson’s, from April through July they will call the Running Y Ranch Resort home. During that time, crews will replace their septic tank, demolish the driveway, remove the deck, move a shed and remove the hot tub so as to excavate as much contaminated soil as possible within close proximity of the home. While their property will be completely cleaned, many of the surrounding properties won’t be finished until 2018.
Two designated burial sites are being filled with contaminated soil and materials, then capped. The amount of soil being moved is massive, measured in the equivalent to football stadiums filled with dirt.
Extensive steps are taken to reduce dust and decontaminate equipment, but regardless of measures taken, the process is still extremely disruptive to normal day-to-day life for residents.
Most of the trees on the site were fallen earlier this year, deemed to have their roots too contaminated by asbestos materials to save.
When primary cleanup activities are completed next year, the site will continue to be closely monitored for years by the Department of Environmental Quality. While new trees will be planted to replace those that were removed, the landscape will have a far different appearance than the lush mature forest that the Gibson’s and others found when they first called North Ridge Estates home.
Richard Gibson predicted that the EPA will spend around $800,000 just to clean up their property alone, but with the trees removed and landscape altered the actual home and property value will never come close to that amount. The emotional toll is even greater, as Susan Gibson was sent to the emergency room showing symptoms of a heart attack when tree-cutting began on the property due to excessive stress.
According to the Gibsons, on-site work crews have been great about communication and taking as much care as possible in their work. From the sound of chainsaws to large dump trucks on Old Fort Road and excavations, their lives are a far cry from what they had hoped to establish.
“Everything has changed; we don’t have our peace and quiet, we don’t have our trees, we don’t have shade, we don’t have beauty,” cried Susan Gibson.
“We have to go with this new plan, I’m still not sure if I’m okay with it. There are days when I just don’t want to come back. This is the only place we can live at this time and we’re stuck, but all the beauty of it is gone and it’s never going to be the same.”