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“Toxic Triangle” Residents Refuse to Go Quietly on Anniversary of Kelly Closure

A dozen years since the closing of Texas’ Kelly Air Force Base, ailing residents and community activists gathered to decry contamination, injustice.

Victor San Miguel presents a proud and defiant image outside the entrance of Port San Antonio, formerly Kelly Air Force Base, site one of the nation’s worst toxic contaminations. His leather biker vest, militant Chicano patches and tattoos, and dark sunglasses communicate an imperturbable intensity. Yet the tears that well up behind those glasses as he addresses a small crowd gathered for the twelfth anniversary of Kelly’s closing on Saturday betray a deep suffering.

“On the block that I live in there are 13 houses. Out of those 13 houses there are 11 houses where people have died or are dying from cancer,” he says. “That’s too many people dying from cancer.”

As the pace of economic development at the retrofitted military base increases, Kelly’s toxic past is aired in the media less frequently. Yet some residents refuse to accept that their cry for justice will not ultimately be answered. And those gathered Saturday July 13 object to the expansion of controversial energy development on the bones of a still un-remediated site they blame for health problems that still plague their neighborhoods.

When a truck one protester says is carrying sand for hydraulic fracturing activity in nearby counties drives out of the port, the group chants, “Hey hey, ho ho. The fracking sands have got to go.” A woman silently holds up a sign that reads simply: “Caution: Toxic Trucks.”

Thursday, July 11, a group of Mexican officials toured Port San Antonio, billed as a “master-planned, 1,900-acre aerospace, industrial complex and international logistics platform,” as part of the annual Sister Cities International conference held in San Antonio. The designated Foreign Trade Zone at Port SA benefits NAFTA-minded international businesses and attracts manufacturers across the transportation and aviation fields. The US Air Force and the US Department of Defense, however, remain the biggest employers here.

As at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, dumping by the military here in decades past contaminated the groundwater with a range of toxic chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and cancer-causing benzene. The toxic stew didn’t stay beneath the base either, it migrated under tens of thousands of nearby homes in the working-class, heavily Latino neighborhoods around the base. And residents used well water drawn from the contaminated aquifer to water their gardens and fruit trees, wash their cars, and – as San Antonio hydrologist George Rice reported years back – “the children used the hoses the way children use hoses,” to play in the water.

Ultimately, the Air Force would cap more than 70 water wells in the neighborhoods surrounding Kelly, Steve Lerner reported for Commonweal, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental-health issues.

But while Lejuene – subject of the documentary film Semper Fi: Always Faithful aired on PBS and elsewhere – was declared a Superfund site and sickened residents were promised health care under the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 signed by President Obama last year, Kelly hasn’t gained the same traction. Texas officials strongly resisted Superfund listing and the EPA ultimately rejected it with the reasoning that Kelly was “not an abandoned site, like virtually all Superfund sites are.” Listing would have enabled area residents to apply for grant money to hire their own legal and scientific experts and advise on cleanup decisions.

While community members were invited to participate in a Restoration Advisory Board, they had no authority to steer policy or set priorities. And they weren’t able to prevent the Air Force from disbanding that board last year.

As Linda Geissinger, spokesperson for the Air Force’s Real Property Agency, told former San Antonio Currentreporter Michael Barajas on the eve of their final meeting in October: “All of these major decisions have already been made. … So what’s left that we’re asking advice for?”

Diana Lopez, a community organizer with the Southwest Workers Union, describes growing up swimming in nearby Leon Creek (right), the western boundary of the former base, every summer. It was a process that continued until she first learned of the range of chemicals poisoning the water body. Participating in community health surveys in her old neighborhood as a SWU intern, and hearing all the complaints of cancer, juvenile diabetes, and developmental damages, led to her decision not to fall in line with a family tradition. “It was really hard. That was when I decided not to go into the Air Force and continue working with SWU,” she said.

A fish consumption advisory was issued in 2010 by the state health department that warns against eating fish in Leon Creek due to high concentrations of PCBs and organochlorine pesticides. According to a state health document (pdf)supporting that advisory “pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, women who are nursing infants, children less than 12 years of age or who weigh less than 75 pounds, women past childbearing age, and adult men should not consume any species of fish from Lower Leon Creek downstream of Rodriguez Park.”

No one debates the fact that people around the former Air Force base have higher rates of liver cancers and birth defects – known outcomes from exposure to TCE, a clear solvent used to clean metal parts – but none of the various local, state, and federal agencies that have studied the cancer clusters say they’ve been able to find a pathway of exposure linking the plume to the bodies of residents. (Epidemiological studies weren’t being done back when the Air Force was busy capping all those water wells.)

The EPA elevated TCE’s known risk to public health in 2000 and now states: “Liver, kidney, immunological, endocrine, and developmental effects have also been reported in humans. A recent analysis of available epidemiological studies reports trichloroethylene exposure to be associated with several types of cancers in humans, especially kidney, liver, cervix, and lymphatic system.”

The federal government settled a lawsuit with some area residents in 2010 for $1 million. After the lawyer’s fees and costs of litigation were subtracted, the 395 residents around the base had $520,000 to share – about $1,300 a piece, according to the San Antonio Express-News. Hundreds of former Lejeune residents have filed claims with the federal government for nearly $4 billion in damages.

Those gathered outside Port SA aren’t after money so much as official recognition that the military contamination is to blame for their illnesses and those of their neighbors. That and economic development that takes public health and justice issues to heart. The government’s settlement made no claim regarding the contamination and public health, and despite a quarter billion spent to date, the cleanup is expected to last until 2041 at the earliest.

“The issue is still the same,” Lopez said. “They keep developing this area. They keep putting in new businesses, adding trucks and adding trains and adding planes, but the contamination is still continuing and it’s still not cleaned up either. There aren’t enough clinics in the area and not enough development that supports this community.”

“I myself was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” San Miguel said. “I probably won’t be here too long. But I’ll go gladly if I know that y’all are going to continue the fight. God bless you. God bless this neighborhood. And to hell with Kelly Field.”