For those who live in San Antonio’s so-called “Toxic Triangle,” this month serves as a somber reminder of the uphill battle they continue to face. Demanding justice and seeking to “reinvigorate” an ongoing struggle to remediate their polluted community, residents rallied at Port of San Antonio in mid July–marking the 12th anniversary of Kelly Field Annex’s closure.
While more than two decades have passed since the Air Force acknowledged the presence of toxic chemical plumes seeping into soil and groundwater at the now-shuttered base, efforts to cleanup the expansive area have yet to be completed. Adding to the frustration, studies indicating a direct causal link between the contamination and health effects remain inconclusive, despite the higher than average rates of cancer and birth complications. As the Current exposed in 2009, city health officials buried from the public research they commissioned themselves that attributed elevated liver cancer rates to hazardous chemicals, deeming the methodology “flawed.”
Today, residents grapple with not only ensuring the cleanup process is underway but with maintaining accountability from officials after an advisory board tasked with overseeing its progress dissolved in March. Moreover, residents say new potential environmental hazards are posing a threat to the already beleaguered, predominately low-income community.
Diana Lopez, environmental justice coordinator with Southwest Workers Union, helped organize the July rally. Lopez grew up in the polluted neighborhood and watched her friends and family fall ill to liver cancer and reproductive health defects over time.
“It’s a significant date [July 13] because we were able to find out what was under the homes in that area,” said Lopez. “Before, people were dying, people were getting sick, but it wasn’t until 2001 that we discovered what specific chemicals were in the groundwater.”
The plumes, lying beneath more than 20,000 homes at one point, are a result of the base’s routine dumping of trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreasing agent and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a paint-stripper. Employees also drained benzene and vinyl chloride into the ground and evidence from a 1997 Air Force report suggests chemical components of Agent Orange were stored on site.
Redeveloped as the Port of San Antonio industrial complex, the base fully transferred ownership from the hands of the Air Force to private industry in 2010.
The Kelly Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), created in 1994, sought to increase dialogue between community members, government and Air Force officials during the cleanup process. Following the privatization, Air Force Real Property Agency representatives decided enough progress had been made, transferred cleanup to an out-of-state contractor and disbanded the only official avenue citizens had with key leaders.
After RAB’s collapse, residents are left worrying about transparency and openness when it comes to securing full remediation. Considering the process already felt more like a “dog-and-pony show” to Lopez than anything else, community members like her are wondering who’s going to help channel their concerns today. “Where do we go now? Who’s the point person?,” asked Lopez. “And how do we track the cleanup process?”
She and other residents are calling on Councilmember Rey Saldaña, who grew up on the South Side, to form a roundtable that would allow residents to voice their thoughts and put forth their vision for the area. Saldaña is responsive to the idea and says he reached out to activists himself. The District 4 council member is working as a liaison between community members and the Port.
“I know a lot of them are my constituents that have been affected by the legacy of the dumping at Kelly. The best thing to do is get level heads in a room to talk about solutions,” said Saldaña. “Right now it’s a question of communication.”
Additionally, problems persist with Alamo Aircraft, a longtime business in the area that is coming under criticism for improperly storing its jet engine fuel containers in proximity to residential areas. Lodging the complaint on behalf of several members of his family that live in the neighborhood, activist Ramiro Asebedo says hundreds of 55-gallon barrels are being used as a makeshift fence and other obsolete aircraft parts are strewn about haphazardly atop the contaminated land, possibly contributing to harmful living conditions.
His mother-in-law, Marcela Rios, has lived in the “Toxic Triangle” since 1950. She says a few years after moving in, her husband began a losing battle with cancer. Rios’ house sits just a few feet away from a cluster of Alamo’s rusted jet engine fuel containers.
City officials and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspectors visited the site recently. While a full, written report from TCEQ will be released in the coming weeks, an attorney with Alamo Aircraft minimized the problems, saying no major environmental hazards were detected during the review.
In the meantime, Alamo is complying with cleanup recommendations from the city.
While grateful the company has agreed to pick up their property, Asebedo remains hawk-eyed about the effort’s full progress, especially in light of the many questionable promises he says were made to the base’s nearby residents during the cleanup process. Unlike most in his community, Asebedo says he has the time and resources to continue to stay persistent.
“People are intimidated to go up against a multi-million dollar company,” said Asebedo. “They’re just caught up with thinking about how they’re going to get through the week, about how they’re going to eat today.”
Lopez agrees, saying her community has trouble expressing its problems. “We try to tell everyone, ‘this is where you live, it’s not wrong to speak up,’ but people are scared.”
As one problem begins to minimize, others seem to arise. For instance, residents are seeing their hopes of abating contamination pushed back further by new environmental woes. The introduction of commercial hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the area has led to an influx of thousands of 18-wheeler trucks carrying fracking sand out of Kelly, according to the Southwest Workers Union.
“It’s a classic case of environmental racism,” says Lopez. “And cumulative damage is a big part of it.”