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Questions linger over Kelly AFB contamination even after property changes hands

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

Toxic Triangle resident Robert Alvarado with a map of the contaminated groundwater plume.

Purple wooden crosses that dot this south San Antonio community are starting to age, their paint chipped and faded. Planted in lawns next to mailboxes, fences, and trees, they point to a battle with cancer for someone inside.

For many here, the crosses are a sign of the lasting, toxic legacy of the now-shuttered Kelly Air Force Base, which last year turned over its last patch of land to the Port San Antonio industrial park. But even as some residents continue to blame the neighborhood’s higher-than-normal rates of cancer and birth defects on chemicals that seeped off base decades ago, the proof is elusive. Kyle Cunningham, program manager at the City’s Public Center for Environmental Health, said last week the agency’s contract with the Air Force to study possible health effects from Kelly contamination, a cooperative agreement struck in 2001, ended last month. All the while, many in the neighborhood are critical that years of studies and reports have failed to answer that one nagging question: whether the Air Force is responsible for the rash of illnesses hammering the neighborhood.

“We’ve felt for a long time the contamination caused our sickness,” says Robert Alvarado, a four-decade veteran of this so-called Toxic Triangle. “But apparently, we’ll never prove it. We’ll be dead and everyone will forget what caused all of this.”

Decades have passed since base officials discovered toxic plumes in the area’s groundwater, once stretching underneath more than 20,000 nearby homes, many of which relied on private water wells. For years, residents of this so-called Toxic Triangle, a residential area on the edge of the former base, have hoped to prove the Air Force culpable, at least in part, for the neighborhood’s health woes, even as studies remained frustratingly inconclusive.

The Air Force started acknowledging decades ago groundwater contamination in and around the base stemming from chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE), a degreaser, and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a chemical used to strip paint, that were routinely dumped into open pits. To date, a quarter billion dollars have been spent on cleanup at Kelly, shrinking the plumes and scrubbing the former base, according to the Air Force Real Property Agency, which expects to shell out another $32 million to complete the cleanup, a process that could drag on into at least 2041, according to Air Force estimates.

Alvarado says he and others first suspected something was wrong at Kelly in the 1980s. Neighbors routinely complained of foul odors coming from the Kelly grounds, he said. Some even saw their fingernails turn black when they watered their lawns. Many of the neighborhood’s shallow groundwater wells that have since been plugged as a precaution were used for drinking, washing cars, and watering gardens.

Base officials began to take note in the late 1980s when construction workers digging along Quintana Road unearthed toxic fumes and collapsed. Officials later admitted that workers drained chemical waste for years directly into the ground, or dumped it into nearby the nearby creek. In addition to TCE and PCE, Kelly workers also handled and dumped dangerous toxins like dichloroethene (DCE), benzene, vinyl chloride and thallium, known and suspected cancer-causing agents.

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