SWU applauds the efforts of the Edgewood Independent School District in west San Antonio to denounce the proposed border wall.
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Tropical Disconnect -- Arriving on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico recently, it was clear we have come to an extraordinarily beautiful place. The beaches are gorgeous, the water is crystal clear, the tourist hotels and restaurants are laid-back and the tropical vegetation and terrain are stunning, especially in the fiery light of sundown.
Looking below the surface here, though, we found a lingering and ugly controversy involving allegations of environmental contamination by the
Looking below the surface here, though, we found a lingering and ugly controversy involving allegations of environmental contamination by the U.S. military and elevated health risks to long-time residents. In the words of a lawsuit filed by more than 7,000 plaintiffs against the U.S. government, "residents of Vieques experience a 30% higher rate of cancer, a 381% higher rate of hypertension, a 99% higher rate of cirrhosis of the liver and a 41% higher rate of diabetes than the rest of Puerto Rico."
From World War Two to 2003, the U.S. Navy maintained a military training and firing range on Vieques, where millions of pounds of bombs, missiles and mortar rounds rained down on the eastern end of the island. Living downwind from the site were more than 9,000 people, many of whom now claim that the accumulated chemicals from all that weaponry made them sick and ruined the land. Among the "explosives, ordnance and contaminants" used here, according the lawsuit, were napalm, agent orange, depleted uranium, white phosphorous, chemical weapons, arsenic, lead, mercury and many other toxic substances.
The U.S. Navy has refused to pay medical claims from residents, and says that based on an environmental study, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has concluded "there were no health risks to the residents of the island."
Critics say the U.S. government study was incomplete, with a Puerto Rican epidemiologist insisting, "they cannot say that there is no link (between the target practice and cancer risks) because they never tested the population."
Two of Nannette Rosa's daughters were treated for cancer after one of them was born with eight tumors in her stomach and intestines and the other developed a tumor on her jaw. Rosa, who sold her house to pay for a trip to New York to seek treatment, says she wants the government to help finance her daughters' care. She also wants a cancer center built on Vieques, where currently there is only a clinic.
As the arguments rage, an undercurrent of despair, fear and anger flows along the stunning landscape here. Meantime, contractors are now detonating or retrieving millions of tons of unexploded bombs and other debris from the old firing range that, five years after the Navy left Vieques, has been turned into a wildlife refuge. It, too, is one of the most beautiful places on earth, although signs posted along the beaches there say it's still too dangerous for anyone to visit and is off-limits.
by Marc Potter, NBC News
The Kelly Air Force Base community has long been calling for indoor air sampling to see if toxic gases are seeping into their homes from the shallow groundwater plume extending from the former base. The process, called "vapor intrusion," could help explain the elevated rates of liver and kidney cancer in the area.
The Express-News recently reported the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) commitment to conduct testing for vapor intrusion ("Residents need answers about Kelly chemicals", April 17, 2008). However, the EPA's plans are so seriously flawed that we must question the Agency's motives. The EPA plans to take samples of gas in soil from under 20 homes in the neighborhood north of the former base. Indoor air will only be tested in "up to" five homes.
In contrast, at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, EPA Region 8 has helped to take over 3,000 indoor air samples in 1,400 homes spread across several communities. Depressurization systems are installed to disperse gases at homes with elevated levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), which are monitored four times a year.EPA staff did not give Congressman Gonzalez's office a chance to review the plan prior to its release despite promising to do so. In a letter to the Agency dated April 16^th , the Congressman questioned the limited scope of the study and the lack of consultation with any local residents or agencies. A November 19^th memo to the EPA from our organizations outlining nine key strategies for an adequate vapor intrusion study was completely ignored.
The North Kelly Gardens neighborhood does have some of the highest levels of contamination, but other areas also deserve examination. Groundwater under homes in the Normoyl Park area has concentrations of TCE over 10 times the EPA's current standard of 5 parts per billion.
Tests by the Air Force last year found a related cancer-causing chemical, PCE, in concentrations up to 2,000 times the EPA's standard underneath buildings 360 and 301 on the former base. Yet the EPA has no plans to test the air Lockheed Martin workers breathe there every day.
The EPA plans to sample in May, though toxic gases accumulate more in the winter when houses are sealed. The testing will also focus on soil, when indoor air samples have been shown to be less intrusive, more informative, and more cost effective.
The EPA's plan is consistent with a disturbing trend on the part of the Agency, specifically Gary Miller, EPA's liaison for Kelly, to disregard community concerns and act in close partnership with the Air Force. The Agency stalled on updating its standards for TCE after finding it to be several times more dangerous than previously thought because of pressure from the Department of Defense. Senator Clinton and four other Senators were so concerned that they introduced legislation last year explicitly requiring the EPA to live up to its requirements and issue the new TCE standards in a timely manner.
However, just this month the EPA revised its rules which will further delay the process, allow the DOD a confidential sneak preview, and give the White House a final say over the review. In a report released yesterday, 60% of EPA scientists who responded to a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists said they had experienced political interference in their work.As organizations with over 14 years of history in this community, we fear the EPA's piecemeal study will be used to dismiss the possibility of vapor intrusion and justify a continued "hands-off" approach to off-base contamination, rather than thoroughly examine the exposure of families.Until the community is involved in revising the EPA's study, we will discourage our members from participating. And regardless of the EPA's findings, we will continue to insist that our families deserve a clean-up as rapid and complete as more affluent neighborhoods across the country.
Lara Cushing, Environmental Justice Coordinator, Southwest Workers Union
Guadalupe Alvarado, President, Committee for Environmental Justice Action
Railroads could be forced to reroute poisonous substances such as chlorine and anhydrous ammonia as well as certain explosives and radioactive materials, and they could swallow or pass on any extra costs.
There are 27 criteria to measure risks, including track conditions, amount of freight, passenger traffic, trip lengths, population densities and places where people congregate, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Officials don't believe railroads will face substantial costs to collect and maintain data on which routes pose the most dangers, and they can't say whether the rule will lead to any rerouting of hazardous loads.
"I don't think anybody has the answer yet," agency Director Joseph Boardman said in a conference call from Pueblo, Colo. "But my expectation is that some routes for hazardous material will be safer than other routes, and when you find those safer routes ... that's where we want you to route the material."
San Antonio leaders locked in a protracted struggle to reroute rail lines around the city welcomed the rule, which comes on the heels of a proposal to force railroads to replace tank cars carrying hazardous materials.
"Another good step in the right direction," Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said. "It seems like we've got an agency that woke up."
Local fears and watchdog efforts were ignited by major train wrecks in recent years, including a 2004 accident near Macdona in Southwest Bexar County that punctured a tank car and spewed a chlorine cloud that killed several people.
Union Pacific, the largest carrier in San Antonio, runs about 80 trains a day through here, of which 50 could be rerouted if new tracks and rail yards were built. The federal safest-route rule could help ensure that any alternate tracks get used.
But nobody has stepped up with construction money, which could amount to several billion dollars.
Voters in 2005 approved a statewide rail relocation and improvement fund, but legislators last year failed to fund it. Some leaders say private partnerships and the mammoth Trans-Texas Corridor network of planned tollways and railways will be needed to tackle the job.
The new federal rule starts June 1, and railroads must start gathering shipment and track data by July 1. Risk assessments are due Sept. 1, 2009.
Failure to comply can bring fines of $2,000 to $10,000 a day.
UP officials said the company is studying the new rule but wants the federal government to go further.
"We already strive to use the safest routes but hope that government will look not only at routing but also safer chemicals and reducing the need for transportation of these dangerous chemicals entirely," spokesman James Barnes of Omaha, Neb., said in a statement.
As the No Border Wall Strategies Conference ended Saturday, Southwest Workers Union coordinator Ruben Solis stood before 20 people who had gathered to summarize events planned for almost every day this month.
At his back, a checkerboard of strategies was taped to the wall, outlining a calendar of community dialogue about immigrant rights.The representatives of border wall protest groups came from across the Rio Grande Valley and had convened at the San Felipe de Jesus Church in Cameron Park to channel their voices into a louder battle cry and stop construction of the federal border fence.
At the conference, protesters characterized the structure as the "Wall of Death."
For months, groups from across the Valley have strategized, demonstrated, walked, talked and facilitated legal disputes of the border fence.
However, a few people gathered Saturday doubted whether any of these efforts have caught attention from the U.S Department of Homeland Security of if the efforts would help deter plans for the fence.
"We have one group on the east side, one on the west side, and yes, we hear each of them a little," said Elizabeth Garcia, cofounder of CASA, the Coalition of Amigos in Solidarity and Action. "We need to create a stronger voice and a space to organize."
To Garcia, the fence is a hot button issue in a larger debate about immigrant rights and solidarity. Like Garcia, University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College student Mario Garza said that he will continue to make his voice heard even if the fence is built.
"It would be far from over (if the fence were built)," Garza said, who heads up the UTB-TSC Comedy Club that has organized many local protests. "It would just infuriate me more. If they do start building, I'm going to do whatever helps to stop it - sit-ins, whatever."
Regardless of the outcome, participants said the conference was a success.
"There were a lot of good ideas I didn't come here with and I have the energy to go out and work against the border wall," said Greg Rodriguez, a member of the World Peace Alliance in Edinburg. "It's our future, right?"
Now federal regulators, under pressure from residents and U.S. Rep Charlie Gonzalez, want to find out if the chemicals in the water beneath the ground could be leaking dangerous vapors into area homes.
Next month, the Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a number of air tests beneath the slabs of homes in the North Kelly Gardens neighborhood and in the homes themselves.
EPA official Gary Miller believes the testing will find some chemical vapors under the slab of homes. But the question is, in what quantities?
"Based on our current review, we're not convinced that we are going to find a problem," he said.
The testing, which will entail drilling a small hole in the concrete slabs, is scheduled to begin May 12 and take about a week.
Miller said he hopes to test 20 homes in the area around 34th Street, Carnation Street and Bay Street, where the groundwater is the most polluted. Depending on the initial results, Miller also wants to conduct indoor air quality testing in about five homes. All is contingent on getting permission from homeowners.
That's fine with Maria Casares, 28, who owns a home on 34th Street.
"Oh, yes," the mother of three said. "That would be good."
Kelly AFB was closed in 2001. Over the decades, solvents and fuel had seeped into the ground, forming a toxic plume in the area's shallow aquifer that's now estimated to stretch some 5 miles beneath more than 20,000 homes and businesses to the south and east of the base.
The contaminants include trichloroethylene, or TCE, which was used to degrease metals. It has been linked to many serious illnesses, particularly, according to a National Academy of Sciences report, kidney cancer. Federal studies have found elevated levels of kidney cancers in two of the ZIP codes around Kelly, but they haven't been linked to TCE.
That aquifer is not used for drinking water. But Casares, like many residents in the neighborhood, still is leery of her tap water, which comes from other sources, and motions to the large blue water bottles stacked in her yard as evidence.
At the other end of 34th Street, Joe Banda, 44, has similar concerns about the water that lies beneath his property and wonders if it has anything to do with his wife's host of ailments, ranging from stomach problems to fibromyalgia. He'd said he'd be happy to let the EPA test in his home.
Because the water in the area is not used for drinking, federal regulators have said it is unlikely residents could come in contact with the chemicals in it.
Residents have argued for years that the chemicals might be vaporizing and seeping back out into the neighborhood. The Air Force conducted soil vapor tests and concluded it's unlikely that vapors would be entering homes in dangerous levels. State regulators tested three structures in a different area of the plume and found no danger.
Lenny Siegel, director of the California-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight, has reviewed the government's soil vapor results and believes they show the potential for contaminating air in homes, particularly in the area that will be tested next month. In states like New York, California or Connecticut, the results would have triggered indoor air testing, he said.
"This is long overdue," said Siegel, who first visited Kelly in 2003 as part of the EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. "I've never claimed that I know for sure that Kelly is making these people sick. But given all the health problems that people have been reporting, they're owed actual sampling."
Silo safety concerns, as well as gripes about odors, dust and rats, are an issue in city council elections in May.
The site of the recently demolished complex beside U.S. 90 was sold last week, and the city plans negotiations in coming weeks on a nearby silo site.
"We're excited about the idea of those bins being taken down," Mayor Jim Danner said of the former Chapman Grain silos that have become an eyesore and health concern since being built around 1950.
Since February, John Shepard, who in 2001 bought Chapman Grain but has now divested himself of silos, has dismantled about seven silos beside the railroad tracks by U.S. 90.
He sold the remaining trackside buildings Thursday to John Lister, who said he might open a steakhouse there.
Lister's first chore was to haul away the last of nearly 10 tons of rotting corn that fueled odor gripes to the city and state.
"People were gagging on that smell," said Chavel Lopez, a city council candidate and head of the Hondo Empowerment Committee, which has called on the city to force the silos to move. "They should've done something immediately."
The city did order Shepard to clean the site, City Manager Robert Herrera said, but silo concerns have highlighted weaknesses in the local building code.
"I think it needs to be beefed up," Herrera said.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on Friday inspected the site but did not confirm nuisance odors were present, an agency official said Monday.
"We've complied with everything the city and the TCEQ asked us to do," Shepard said.
The silo issue heated up in August when a Medina Valley Grain worker was seriously injured as one of about 10 bins on Avenue O split open, burying him in corn.
The city then discussed buying the complex — also a Chapman Grain site — but couldn't reach terms with owner David Jones, who declined comment.
Danner said Jones' asking price of $160,000 exceeded the appraised value, and the city is prohibited by law from making the purchase.
But Danner said new talks are expected because "the owner's come back and said he may want to try to make that deal."
Municipal leaders face sharp criticism from Lopez, who has complained of "environmental racism" at city hall as part of a slate of three candidates running for the city council. Lopez said the silos issue has been "going on for years and years in low income, working-class Mexican neighborhoods."
Danner rejects that charge.
"Apparently we're not moving fast enough for them," he said.