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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Consequences of Lax Enforcement

Air Date: Week of November 27, 1992

Terry Fitzpatrick and George Hardeen report on the long battles of two urban communities against industrial pollution and what they say is governmental inaction. In West Dallas, Texas, black and Hispanic residents say the city and the EPA have done little to address the contamination of their neighborhood by lead from nearby smelters. And in Tucson, Arizona, an Hispanic neighborhood is pressing for stronger action to clean up their water supply, which has been contaminated for more than 40 years. Both communities accuse government officials of environmental racism.

Transcript

CURWOOD: The EPA and other government agencies have been slow to take action in many communities of color -- sometimes, very slow. For example, in West Dallas, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona, Latinos and African-Americans say they're still being poisoned by pollution which began as far back as the 1940's. We have two reports, the first from Terry Fitzpatrick in Dallas.

(Sound of train)

FITZPATRICK: West Dallas was originally a place where cowboys loaded cattle onto trains. As an unregulated, unincorporated region just outside the city limits, West Dallas eventually attracted dozens of factories that handle hazardous chemicals.

(Dog barking)

FITZPATRICK: Hundreds of modest homes were built in West Dallas too. One day, when he was 11 years old, Luis Sepulveda learned his neighborhood was not a healthy place to live.

SEPULVEDA: I was swinging out here in this backyard, and I was swinging back and forth and ran inside the house and told Mom and Dad, "it's snowing!" And that's when I noticed all the glittering that was coming in, it was just beautiful glitter that was coming, like somebody just threw up glitter and it was coming down all over us.

FITZPATRICK: The glitter turned out to be lead, from three smelters that recycled old batteries.

SEPULVEDA: This is my second daughter, she got so sick. . . (fade under)

FITZPATRICK: The dangers of lead weren't acknowledged by authorities back in the 1950's and '60's. But Julia Sepulveda, Luis' mother, could see the toll it was taking on her family.

FITZPATRICK: How many children do you have?
SEPULVEDA: I have nine children, and they're all affected by this lead in one way or another.

FITZPATRICK: The neighborhoods that eventually grew to surround the lead smelters are predominantly Hispanic and African-American. There's a large public housing project nearby. Jim Schermbeck is a community organizer for the group Texans United.

SCHERMBECK: And if you look back at the documents of the time, when they're starting to build the housing project in West Dallas, you'll see statements like, you know, there's a lead smelter over there and we probably shouldn't put people over there but we're gonna do it anyway. As they knew more and more about the problems of the lead smelter, they moved white elderly folk out of that West Dallas project and into other locations around the city and left behind primarily African-American, some Hispanic residents there.

FITZPATRICK: The City of Dallas publicly recognized the dangers of lead in the 1970's. Vic Argento, who ran the city's newly-formed air pollution department, asked the EPA to establish limits to help restrict lead pollution.

ARGENTO: There were tremendously high lead emissions that were coming out of the plant every day it operated. And at that time the EPA actually had no interest in doing anything at all to control lead emissions, said it was just a localized problem and that we should deal with it ourselves.

FITZPATRICK: Ultimately the city used new zoning laws to shut the smelters down. Buck Wynne is now the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. He was on the commission that changed the city's zoning laws.

WYNNE: It looks to me like it was simply a matter of frankly inadequate land use controls that have caused problems throughout the City of Dallas.

FITZPATRICK: Residents of West Dallas took the problem to court in the mid-1980's on behalf of 370 lead-poisoned children. They won $20 million dollars from one of the lead smelting companies, and an area within one mile of its plant was supposedly cleaned up. Regulators considered the case closed. But many West Dallas residents did not.

(Sound of protest marchers: "No more pollution . . . no more pollution.")

FITZPATRICK: Years of continued protests eventually got the city and the EPA to begin a new round of lead testing throughout West Dallas. The smelters allowed residents to take lead-tainted battery casings to use as fill dirt, and now the EPA has documented dangerously high lead levels at three schools and nearly 200 homes. Contaminated soil is being trucked away to a landfill in Illinois. Luis Sepulveda claims even this latest cleanup won't be enough.

SEPULVEDA: They're not doing cleanup. They're just dusting. It's a big act, is what I say, here in West Dallas.

FITZPATRICK: Sepulveda's coalition of West Dallas residents has filed another lawsuit, alleging a pattern of neglect by federal, state and local agencies that amounts to environmental racism. Community organizer Jim Schermbeck says the group isn't seeking damages. Instead, it wants blood screening of residents, medical checkups, and a buffer zone between factories and homes.

SCHERMBECK: Those kinds of things are being asked for , just in part to get an accounting of what all has happened, but also to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

FITZPATRICK: Buck Wynne won't discuss the EPA's actions years ago, but denies there's racism inside the agency today. He points out that the EPA is using Superfund money to clean up West Dallas, even before the region is approved as a Superfund site.

WYNNE: Most of the things that they're asking for, that they're asking the judge to order us to do, are being done already. And that's something that, you know, ultimately they'll have to prove at the courthouse. So let's go to the courthouse and let's see what they've got. I don't think they've got the evidence to back their claims.

FITZPATRICK: As the cleanup continues and the lawsuit winds through court, West Dallas residents are divided over efforts to have the region listed a Superfund site. Some of the activists who helped close the lead smelters years ago say Superfund listing would close the door on future economic development. But activists such as Sepulveda and Schermbeck say that efforts at urban renewal won't mean much if the neighborhood's lead contamination isn't cleaned up once and for all. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry Fitzpatrick in Dallas.

HARDEEN: I'm George Hardeen in Tucson, Arizona.

SOSA: In this house, the lady also had, across the street had cancer. She's living but she gets chemotherapy. In this house the lady died of cancer. In that brick house right there, the gentleman had testicular cancer, and he died of respiratory problems, it reached his lungs, the cancer. In that house across the street . . . (Fade under)

HARDEEN: When 53-year-old Marie Sosa describes her neighborhood in Tucson's Latino Southside, it's a horror story of death and disease. Babies born without fingers, ears or brains . . . teenage girls with leukemia, having hysterectomies, and boys with testicular cancer. In the 30 homes on her street alone, 27 people have cancer, or have died from it. Sosa herself had a double mastectomy in 1985, and like many women around here, has developed the nerve disease lupus. Now her daughters are sick with thyroid cancer and Graves disease, and something's wrong with her son. After 11 years, and thousands of cases like these, naming a cause still leaves scientists uncertain and cautious. But not the people.

WHEELER: I feel very strongly that tricholoroethylene is a carcinogen and therefore it causes problems and causes cancer in human beings.

HARDEEN: Bruce Wheeler is a Tucson city councilman whose district is 60 percent Hispanic. Like many others, he says long-term exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the city's drinking water explains the strange illnesses of 20,000 residents of Tucson's Hispanic Southside. As far back as the 1940's, TCE was used by the aircraft and defense industries here to clean grease from airplane parts and machinery. The Air Force and the Hughes Aircraft Company routinely poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of the used solvent in the open desert south of town. It soaked into the ground and eventually contaminated Tucson's only water source, an aquifer 125 feet deep. A contaminated plume of water went undetected for years and spread directly under Southside Hispanic neighborhoods adjacent to the airport, where it was pumped from city wells and piped into 50,000 homes, most of them Latino. Back then, desert dumping was the accepted method of TCE disposal. There was nothing illegal about it until 1977. But by then, clusters of people were already sick and dying. Rose Augustine lost her aunt to cancer in 1978. Ill now herself, Augustine remembers what it was like when people first began to suspect a problem.

AUGUSTINE: First we saw the trees were dying. Then we saw our pets die. Then we saw our neighbors die. Then, our families die. It's been over a decade now and the city of Tucson has done nothing to start the water cleanup.

MILLER: I think what you have to start with is a premise a lot of people seem to forget, and that is that the city water department didn't put the TCE into the wells, didn't put it into the ground.

HARDEEN: Tucson mayor George Miller says the city has acted, by closing 11 municipal wells since 1981 -- although it was ordered to do so by the Environmental Protection Agency. A lengthy personal-injury lawsuit against the city, the Air Force, Hughes, and the Tucson Airport ended last year in an $88-million dollar settlement for 1600 people and their lawyers, but so far, little has been done to get the water cleaned up. The city assures residents that no one on municipal wells is getting contaminated water anymore. But the mayor still wonders whether TCE is the cause of these illnesses. The chemical was used in the past for such things as an anaesthetic and to decaffeinate coffee. Dan Opalski is the EPA's Tucson Airport Superfund manager. The EPA lists TCE as a probable carcinogen, he says, but . . .

OPALSKI: There has been nothing that has drawn a cause-and-effect relationship between exposures here in Tucson and the illnesses that we're seeing.

HARDEEN: Southside residents don't believe it. They angrily call the years since TCE contamination was discovered in their water "the decade of denial," when most health officials blamed their smoking, drinking and eating too much chili as reasons for their cancers. They say the EPA didn't go far enough by just closing the wells, but should have at least studied their health and gotten them some medical care. Pima County Supervisor Raul Grijalva, who grew up on the Southside, says people have a strong sense why this has not already been done.

GRIJALVA: This would not be happening to us, we would have better action, things would be being done, if this was a white affluent area. And like it or not, that is a truth, but more importantly here in the political sense, it's a belief.
HARDEEN: Here in the airport district, Hughes Aircraft has spent $32 million dollars since 1987 to build and operate this water treatment plant. In a process called "air stripping," water is pumped into six 40-foot-high towers, where it's shot full of air and the TCE is vacuumed off as it quickly evaporates. With the EPA's help, Tucson wants to build its own air stripper plant. But even if it could treat a million gallons of water a day, it would take 15 to 20 years to remove all of the TCE from the aquifer. After years of delay and damage to their lives and property values, Southside Latino residents say the EPA added insult to injury by failing to include them in the plans to get rid of the tainted water. The current design is to build a pipeline along their busiest commercial street to carry contaminated water to a treatment site. Rose Augustine says after all she and families like hers have been through, this idea will only further harm the community.

AUGUSTINE: The pipeline's going to kill the business on 12th Avenue. These people cannot afford that pipeline going down that street.

HARDEEN: An alternative route can be used, city and EPA officials say, but it will add a year's delay to the start on getting Tucson's tainted water supply cleaned up. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tucson, Arizona.

 

 

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