Abel Hernandez seemed to labor a little in the sun as he toted a sign and chanted for nearly 2 miles on his way to the old Kelly AFB on Saturday morning.
The 39-year-old contractor was one of 50 or so people who braved the heat for the march, shouting slogans through the streets of the South Side to show their anger with the Defense Department over the environmental mess left at the old base.
Although visibly sweating, Hernandez wasn't doing any worse than anyone else on the march, which is good for a man whose kidney and pancreas were replaced five years ago. Many had stories as bad as Hernandez — some worse. These included Hernandez's neighbor, retired middle school teacher Elma Sartuche, 50.
"I need a liver transplant. It's $300,000 and I don't qualify for any assistance. So, that means I'm dying, doesn't it?" she said. "But before I do, I'm going to make my mark."
The march was the final event in a three-day conference that drew activists from all over the world to discuss ways that communities can fight contamination from military bases.
"We have these same problems on the island," said Pali Kapu, a 60-year-old farmer and fisherman who made the trip from Hawaii to San Antonio.
"But things like this, it brings solidarity," he added. "It brings power to the little people."
District 5 Councilwoman Patti Radle, the lone public official at the march, agreed, saying events such as Saturday's march were one of the few ways to keep the important issue "on the front burner of the community."
The conference, "Movement-Building Against Military Contamination & Militarism," was organized by the Southwest Workers Union, an organization that has long been a vocal critic of the federal government's handling of the Kelly cleanup.
"They say we like to start trouble, but we are not the ones who started this trouble," said union President Nick Charles. "We're the ones who want to stop this trouble."
The old base, now redeveloped under the name Port San Antonio, closed five years ago. Investigators have found that chemicals dumped or leaked at the base have contaminated a shallow aquifer below. The Air Force has spent more than $320 million on environmental investigation and cleanup, but the contaminated plume, at one time, was thought to have spread beneath at least 20,000 homes.
Federal studies have found elevated rates of cancers in the neighborhoods around the base, but experts have been unable to link the illnesses to the contamination. This has frustrated residents such as Hernandez, who says nearly every family in his neighborhood has someone with some sort of serious illness.
"There has to be some kind of link other than genetics," Hernandez said. "This has been going on for too long."
Protesters Question Health Concerns around Kelly USA - under News, select more videos, search for this title, 7/15/06