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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.

As the groundwater plumes continue to recede with the ongoing remediation, Alvarado and others in the neighborhood fear their chances of linking local sicknesses to Kelly’s toxic past shrinks.

Diana Lopez, an environmental justice organizer with Southwest Workers Union who grew up in the Toxic Triangle, said that while San Antonio’s Metro Health has largely been responsive to concerns from the community it has often felt like the cadre of local, state, and federal agencies has been looking for ways to explain away the illnesses. “That’s part of what makes it this ongoing struggle, it seems like there’s always excuses,” she said. Case in point: the brief inference out of Metro Health two years back that aflatoxin-contaminated corn, or bad tortillas, might explain away the high cancer and diabetes rates in the neighborhood (“Yea, we were pretty disgusted by that one,” Lopez said).

And while Gangnuss says that there is “no evidence that containers of actual Herbicide Orange were ever maintained at the former East Kelly AFB,” it is true that the chemical components of Agent Orange were stored there.

The Centers for Disease Control last year funded a study testing soil samples from 10 neighborhood homes for the presence of dioxin, a key component of dangerous herbicide. Still, the study by Texas A&M University professor Thomas McDonald found that all possible carcinogens — including dioxins — discovered in the samples were at levels considered acceptable by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. After reviewing the report, renowned environmental scientist and activist Wilma Subra, who’s helped residents in the neighborhood since 2001, said dioxin levels in some of the samples surpassed revised benchmarks the EPA plans to rollout in the near future. “I would say they’re still elevated.”

Subra has assisted nearby residents in digesting the mounds of data regarding Kelly, helping consolidate EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality reports, and presenting yearly breakdowns to residents. “There are a whole host of issues here still,” she said by phone last week, “but the big one is that there’s still offsite groundwater contamination.”

The most recent test well data, she said, shows a plume still floats underneath the northern corner of the neighborhood. Recent EPA analysis showed vapor from the toxic plumes had made its way into some neighborhood homes, but not at levels that required action from the agency.

The cleanup, Subra says, is “moving, but it’s still moving very slowly.” There’s still sub-surface contamination the Air Force has yet to address, she insists, claiming some contaminated areas on base were simply capped or covered over with parking lots, leaving open the possibility of chemical leeching in the future. At one of the most contaminated sites on the former base, the old metal plating shop, Subra says officials simply erected cement walls to contain the toxins. “There’s still huge source material there,” she said.

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