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Air Force moves to shutter community board overseeing toxic pollution at Kelly AFB

Photo: Michael Brajas, License: N/A

Michael Brajas

Robert Alvarado at his home in the Toxic Triangle last year.

Aldrich found “conspicuous evidence of clustering of communities with elevated liver cancer rates nearby to the former Kelly AFB,” estimating 11.5 percent of the neighborhood's cancer woes may very well be linked to the toxic plumes. While Garcia asked why the study was never “extensively reported,” Termaath replied that it was hashed out at an October 9, 2007, RAB meeting. Problem one: There was no RAB meeting on October 9, 2007*, according to the Air Force's online collection of agenda items, action reports, and transcripts dating back to the RAB's first meetings in 1994. Problem two: Records show Aldrich's conclusions were in fact never discussed at a RAB meeting, save for one brief mention in April 2009 when Schwartz brought up the report himself during a public comment period.

“Anyone who believes everything the Air Force says about that place isn't looking close enough,” contends Robert Silvas, a RAB member from 2001 to 2006. Silvas recalls pressing the issue of Agent Orange storage onsite before and after his time on the board. The Air Force has insisted that while some of the herbicide's chemical components were once stored at Kelly, there's “no evidence that containers of actual Herbicide Orange were ever maintained” at the base. However, a 1997 Air Force report on one Kelly site references internal records from 1971, saying the Air Force found record of “8 rows of approximately 400 drums of liquid Herbicide Blue” along with “3 groups of approximately 600 drums of liquid Herbicide Orange” stored onsite.

Respected hydrologist George Rice, who served as a RAB member for nearly a decade, recalled always feeling uneasy about the public health studies coming out of Metro Health, at the time under the leadership of Dr. Fernando Guerra. Back then, he says, Guerra had a knack for pinning the elevated cancer rates on other problems, like preexisting conditions, tobacco use, and corn smut. “They'd come in and pooh-pooh that stuff any time health issues came up,” Rice said last week. “I wouldn't say a lot of us trusted their explanations.”

At last week's meeting, responding to similar concerns from one RAB member, Kyle Cunningham, program manager with the department's Public Center for Environmental Health, said, “I understand where you're coming from. … But it's very, very difficult to make that link [between contaminants and illness] in a positive way.”

Perhaps because of the difficulty of the task it's more important to keep the RAB functioning, suggested Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist and activist who's helped residents in the Toxic Triangle digest data on the community since 2001. The RAB has been “the single mechanism for these people to sit down with the Air Force on a regular basis and keep an eye on the process,” she said. “By doing this [ending the process], the Air Force is basically saying the health issues are resolved or taken care of. They're not.”

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