Friday, July 07, 2006

Groups fighting distrust


From San Antonio Express-News

Michelle Mondo
Express-News Staff Writer

Faster environmental cleanup, a decrease in noise and air pollution, and more communication among government agencies and the community were three main concerns discussed at a June 24 roundtable meeting that involved Kelly area residents and local and state agency representatives.

Making an effort to put issues of distrust aside, nearly 90 people joined in a roundtable discussion on environmental issues and other concerns about the area around the former Kelly AFB, now Port San Antonio.

The meeting included representatives of the Southwest Workers' Union, the Quintana Neighborhood Association, the Air Force Real Property Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The Kelly Area Collaboration, or KAC, an initiative by a collection of federal agencies called the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice, organized the meeting. It is the first of three roundtables focusing on environment, health and initiatives. The next roundtable is Aug. 26 with the focus on health issues.

Genaro Rendon, co-director of the Southwest Workers' Union, said the roundtable offered residents the opportunity for equal footing.

"We're all at the same level here," Rendon said. "We're all experts about how we live our lives. The push was to get real community participation."

According to news reports, the Air Force often has taken the brunt of the criticism concerning the cleanup and lack of communication regarding the former air logistics center. At the roundtable, Air Force representatives talked about the decrease in the toxic plume of Leon Creek and how the property is open to anyone who wants a tour.

Joe Saenz, chief engineer with the Port Authority of San Antonio, said a public tour is scheduled July 29. He said the tour would include information on what is being done to decrease noise.

"We want to give the community some feedback on what can be curtailed or modified to eliminate or reduce the noise problems," he said.

Tours have been offered in the past and doors opened but that just isn't enough, said Robert Silvas, community co-chairman of the Restoration Advisory Committee, a community group. Silvas said the roundtable is one more positive step but meetings like that in the past haven't spurred solid results.

"We've gone on tours, but still, I get the sense that whatever's in place goes back to, 'We're spending X amount of millions of dollars and still have a long way to go,'" Silvas said.

"Meetings ongoing like this are strictly advice. They can either take it or leave it. I've attended quite a few of these meetings, and I haven't gotten the sense that they are doing everything they can. The treatments in place are only a temporary fix. And they really just begin to scratch what is going on."

Sonja Coderre, public affairs officer for the Air Force Real Property Agency, or AFRPA, said the meeting was a positive step toward the two groups understanding each other.

"Community members think it's going too slowly; others are concerned that practices on the base need changed, and they have been," Coderre said. "But there's a lot of information that hasn't been presented and that people aren't aware of. And still some work that needs to be done."

It takes time to overcome the distrust, so the two sides have to keep working together, said Nelda Perez, environmental justice liaison of Dallas EPA Region 6. Perez works with communities throughout New Mexico and Texas. She took over the Kelly file a year and a half ago.

Perez said the Air Force and the community have done a good job trying to work together.

"That's always an issue when you have agencies trying to address problems, and community people don't know whether they can trust what they are saying or not," Perez said.

"So you have to really work at building that trust, and that's part of the reason for this collaborative."

Community members also hope that once information is released, the documents will be written in a non-technical language and that reports will be accessible.

In the end, however, meeting time ran out for discussion of implementation for solutions. But a KAC planning committee will have a meeting to work out solutions to the cleanup and also the community's request for more communication. Jill Johnston, environmental justice organizer for the Southwest Workers' Union, is on the planning committee and said all efforts will be made to address the residents' concerns.

"In the community, the problems aren't separate for us, but the agencies need to understand the holistic picture and figure out how to work together," Johnston said.

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