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Environmental Problems Persist For Residents near Former KAFB Site

Photo: Photos by Mary Tuma, License: N/A

Photos by Mary Tuma

Rusted jet engine fuel containers belonging to Alamo Aircraft sit a few feet away from residential property in the “Toxic Trianlge”

Photo: , License: N/A

For those who live in San Antonio’s so-called “Toxic Triangle,” this month serves as a somber reminder of the uphill battle they continue to face. Demanding justice and seeking to “reinvigorate” an ongoing struggle to remediate their polluted community, residents rallied at Port of San Antonio in mid July–marking the 12th anniversary of Kelly Field Annex’s closure.

While more than two decades have passed since the Air Force acknowledged the presence of toxic chemical plumes seeping into soil and groundwater at the now-shuttered base, efforts to cleanup the expansive area have yet to be completed. Adding to the frustration, studies indicating a direct causal link between the contamination and health effects remain inconclusive, despite the higher than average rates of cancer and birth complications. As the Current exposed in 2009, city health officials buried from the public research they commissioned themselves that attributed elevated liver cancer rates to hazardous chemicals, deeming the methodology “flawed.”

Today, residents grapple with not only ensuring the cleanup process is underway but with maintaining accountability from officials after an advisory board tasked with overseeing its progress dissolved in March. Moreover, residents say new potential environmental hazards are posing a threat to the already beleaguered, predominately low-income community.

Diana Lopez, environmental justice coordinator with Southwest Workers Union, helped organize the July rally. Lopez grew up in the polluted neighborhood and watched her friends and family fall ill to liver cancer and reproductive health defects over time.

“It’s a significant date [July 13] because we were able to find out what was under the homes in that area,” said Lopez. “Before, people were dying, people were getting sick, but it wasn’t until 2001 that we discovered what specific chemicals were in the groundwater.”

The plumes, lying beneath more than 20,000 homes at one point, are a result of the base’s routine dumping of trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreasing agent and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a paint-stripper. Employees also drained benzene and vinyl chloride into the ground and evidence from a 1997 Air Force report suggests chemical components of Agent Orange were stored on site.

Redeveloped as the Port of San Antonio industrial complex, the base fully transferred ownership from the hands of the Air Force to private industry in 2010.

The Kelly Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), created in 1994, sought to increase dialogue between community members, government and Air Force officials during the cleanup process. Following the privatization, Air Force Real Property Agency representatives decided enough progress had been made, transferred cleanup to an out-of-state contractor and disbanded the only official avenue citizens had with key leaders.

After RAB’s collapse, residents are left worrying about transparency and openness when it comes to securing full remediation. Considering the process already felt more like a “dog-and-pony show” to Lopez than anything else, community members like her are wondering who’s going to help channel their concerns today. “Where do we go now? Who’s the point person?,” asked Lopez. “And how do we track the cleanup process?”

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