By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Today 50 feet upstream of Mena's pump house is a monitoring well erected by the county to tell if a plume of poison is drifting down to him. Mena points out the metal plate that marks the spot. Then he looks at his well house nearby. "By the time [arsenic] arrives here, though, it will be too late for me," he notes, meaning that the contagion will practically be in his well water. (This past weekend the state Department of Environmental Protection informed Mena that it had found lead contamination almost twice the legal limit in his well water. Mena's wife is four and a half months pregnant.)
The Menas drink and cook with bottled water just to be safe. Tony's in-laws Jesus and Cristina no longer incur the expense. They moved out around October 2000. "From the beginning they were opposing me standing up for my rights," recalls Mena. "They didn't want any problems, and they were afraid of retaliation."
His parents felt the same way. "Everybody was telling me to sell the house and move away," says Mena. After a few heated arguments, the topic was banned from the house. He believes that both sets of parents were influenced by a lifetime in Cuba, but Mena wouldn't be cowed. "If I sold this property and moved somewhere else in Redland, this could happen there too," he says. "You can run, but you can't hide."
This past April Tony Mena and John Wade were joined in their battle against Mestre's menace by another homeowner from the area, Ellen Perez, a self-employed antiques dealer. She and her family live on the other side of the Ouster property from Mena. Although conscious of the problem, she thought it would be resolved. "I realized the mountain was getting huge," she remembers. "Something was wrong with this picture."
She and Tony Mena would sometimes follow Mestre's trucks to try to figure out where they went. They would even stand off site to take videos or photos of the piles. This, they say, made the Ouster people really angry. Perez claims she was personally threatened with jail by one of Mestre's guys. "Ouster never attempted to communicate with us in any positive way," she declares. "All they've done is threaten."
In her case Mestre did more than simply threaten; he has made Perez pay dearly for defending her home. As such the waste tycoon seems to be signaling that he plans to deal with the fears of neighbors and the environmental problems at the Ouster site with a legal jihad.
When Perez found out about the arsenic, she grew worried. "I was very upset and concerned about the safety of my family and my property value," she says. "It wasn't just a smell that kept us indoors; [now] there was something toxic there."
She felt obligated to get involved and started a letter-writing campaign to federal officials. Perez also worked to get the word out about the situation, printing up flyers and talking to the media. It was here that she made a slight misstep. Mestre pounced.
In particular Perez is alleged to have made statements to local newspapers the Homestead Sun and South Dade News Leader complaining about illegal arsenic limits in her well water. While Ouster had contaminated the water beneath its own site, contamination has not migrated to Perez's wells. Perez says she misread the complicated technical form DERM sent her and then the newspapers further misquoted her. "I made an honest mistake in misinterpreting the scientific language," she admits.
The legal action began first against the Redland Citizens Association this past June 7, when Mestre's lawyer, Andres Rivero, fired off a warning letter to the RCA claiming the organization undertook "an aggressive campaign of harassment, defamation, libel, and tortious interference with the business relations of Ouster." The letter also named Mena, Perez, and both John and Pat Wade as responsible for similar actions and demanded the alleged behavior stop.
Mestre clearly had a public-relations disaster on his hands and was using every effort to legally muzzle his critics. Less than three weeks later, on June 25, Rivero filed suit against Perez for her comments in the local papers. In his lawsuit Rivero wrote, "In her strong desire to cause the closing of the site, defendant has intentionally and with express malice made false statements about Ouster and its business activities for the purpose of harming Ouster to force it to close the site."
Perez has been forced to spend thousands of dollars to defend the lawsuit as Rivero has taken over eight depositions for a trial scheduled for April 2002. "They are the ones who have polluted and violated environmental laws, and I am the one who is getting sued," complains Perez. "A lawsuit like this could cripple [my family]. Every time there has been a deposition, it has cost us money."
Perez's lawyer, Robert Bissonnette, describes the suit as an attempt to silence his client in a classic example of what is colloquially referred to as a SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).
Mestre's opposition to Perez has not simply taken time and money from her. In late October she wound up in the hospital for chest pains, which she says her doctor attributes to stress that Perez connects to the lawsuit.