Bexar county Kelly Air Force

Kelly Air Force Base:
San Antonio's Dumping Ground

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KAFB This week the Texas Toxic Tour takes you to San Antonio, Texas and Kelly Air Force Base (KAFB). Kelly is located near predominantly Hispanic communities which have been complaining for years about health problems from contamination at the base. This is their story.

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San Antonio's Dumping Ground

Kelly Air Force Base (KAFB) in San Antonio has been one of the Air Force's major aircraft maintenance facilities since the 1950s. Located on 4000 acres and surrounded by residential neighborhoods, KAFB warehouses and maintains aircraft, jet engines, and accessory components (including nuclear materials) for worldwide distribution. Activities at the base can generate as much as 282,000 tons of hazardous waste per year, all in close proximity to the neighboring communities. (1)

Yolanda Johnson has lived one block from KAFB in the "North Kelly Gardens" community since 1965. She and others in the predominantly Hispanic surrounding communities have been complaining for years about health problems from contamination at the base. She remembers watching her children play at the fenceline of KAFB, while a few feet away air force personnel dumped contaminated waste into an open pit in the ground. At the time Mrs. Johnson didn't know what they were dumping, but she knew it smelled bad and "when it would rain, this pit would overflow and it would come into our neighborhood."(2)

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Featured in our interview are Yolanda Johnson, Armando Quintanilla and Dominga Gamez.

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Over the years, her family began suffering from unexplainable illnesses. "My children started getting sick," Mrs. Johnson remembers. "I have two children whose legs start bowing, and their arms start bowing. And I kept thinking, 'There must be something wrong here,' because my children were healthy and now their bones were bowing." (3) Mrs. Johnson's family doctor was unable to determine the cause of the bone ailment and she was referred to specialists at the University hospital. Her children spent the next two years sleeping with casts on their arms and legs at night to correct the damage.

Yolanda Johnson Now health effects are appearing in the third generation of her family-a granddaughter was born with missing ribs and a missing kidney while other grandchildren have suffered from kidney disease and hair loss. Other residents are falling ill as well-a health survey conducted in Mrs. Johnson's neighborhood in 1997 found that "91% of the adults and 79% of the children are suffering multiple illnesses" ranging from ear, nose and throat conditions to central nervous system disorders. (4)

KAFB Knowingly Dumped Toxic Chemicals

Scientists at KAFB released information in 1983 indicating that toxic waste had been dumped into an uncovered pit-much like the one described by Mrs. Johnson - from 1960 to 1973. The waste contained carcinogens such as benzene, chlorobenzene, perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene and created plumes of contaminated groundwater which still run beneath nearby residential areas.

Armando Quintanilla Armando Quintanilla, another local resident, worked at KAFB from 1945 until his retirement in 1992 and was aware of the many pollutants generated at the base. "The trichloroethylene [a solvent used to degrease aircraft parts] was intentionally dumped by the Air Force into the ground, which went into the groundwater and has now gone as far as three miles from the fenceline at KAFB," says Mr. Quintanilla.(5)

These plumes of contaminated groundwater extend throughout a shallow aquifer which runs beneath more than 20,000 homes near the base. The aquifer was once a major source of drinking water for neighborhoods near the base, but now people use it mainly to water their lawns and gardens. So while local residents are not drinking directly from the polluted source, they still may face exposure to toxins through domestic and recreational contact or from volatile vapors which may enter their homes from the contaminated plumes beneath.(6) And now there is growing concern that contaminants from KAFB have migrated deeper into the Edwards Aquifer, the drinking water source for the City of San Antonio.(7)

Regulatory Inaction

By 1994, the US EPA had assigned "highest priority" to KAFB for environmental cleanup(9) and encouraged regulators at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) to designate the cleanup of the base as a "top priority" in the state.(10) In a memo circulated within TNRCC in 1995, the agency acknowledged "extensive environmental contamination at the base" and concluded that little had been done to correct the problem, in part because KAFB had "been trying to circumvent the regulatory process for the last 6 years."(11) Nonetheless, TNRCC made little effort to move the cleanup process forward. In fact, the agency was so lacking in resources to undertake the task that it contracted to have the Air Force itself pay TNRCC to monitor its own cleanup.(12) For its part, the Air Force denied any responsibility for off-site contamination and suggested that affected neighborhoods could rely on "natural attenuation" to solve the problem. Simply put, the Air Force considered letting "mother nature" take care of the problem through natural degradation and dissipation of contaminants over time-a process that could take up to 30 years to complete. (13)

With plans to close the base in 2001, EPA, TNRCC, and the Greater Kelly Development Corporation (GKDC) began discussions on the future of the base, including what approach to take toward cleanup of the contamination as well as future uses of the site. Local residents expressed interest in participating in the decision-making and were working with grassroots organizations such as the Southwest Public Workers Union (SPWU) and the Committee for Environmental Justice Action (CEJA), a group comprised of residents living near KAFB.(14)

In October 1999, these groups, along with the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, filed a petition with the EPA and Governor George Bush to designate Kelly Air Force Base as a Federal Superfund site.(15) Superfund designation allows residents of affected areas to apply for federal grant money to allow them to participate in the government's clean-up decisions (often by hiring their own experts to advise them on cleanup proposals).(16) However, the State of Texas opposed listing KAFB as a Federal Superfund site and in May 1999, SPWU and CEJA used this, as well as other allegations, to file a federal civil rights complaint alleging discrimination against the Latino community near the base.(17)

As part of their complaint, community members asserted that KAFB, TNRCC, the City of San Antonio, EPA, and two other organizations "discriminate against Latino residents that live near Kelly AFB in San Antonio, Texas by ignoring their environmental protection and public health needs."(18) The citizens cited numerous examples of "institutional racism" related to contamination at KAFB, including:

  • Discrimination in deciding not to list KAFB as a Superfund site.
  • Exclusion of community members from decision-making meetings related to the closure and cleanup of KAFB.
  • Withholding of information from the public regarding the nature and extent of contamination, including failure to inform potential home buyers (of federally subsidized property) of the environmental conditions of the property.
  • Failure of TNRCC to take enforcement action against the base. (19)

While the case is pending, local residents continue to live each day in their contaminated neighborhoods, and new families continue to move in, lured by the prospect of affordable housing but unaware of the risks. "That's what concerns me," says Yolanda Johnson. "We have a lot of young marriages here. A lot of young children moving in because it's affordable housing. And they move in and they don't know that¼eventually they'll be sick like we are. And I think that's a very sad thing to happen." (20)

Join Texas PEER soon for another stop on the Texas Toxic Tour.

Sources:

  1. Southwest Public Workers' Union, "North Kelly Gardens Community Health Survey near Kelly AFB, Texas," Revised Edition, 10/23/97, p. 3.
  2. Interview with Yolanda Johnson, 2/15/00.
  3. Interview with Yolanda Johnson, 2/15/00.
  4. Southwest Public Workers' Union, "North Kelly Gardens Community Health Survey near Kelly AFB, Texas," Revised Edition, 10/23/97, p. 4.
  5. Southwest Public Workers' Union, "North Kelly Gardens Community Health Survey near Kelly AFB, Texas," Revised Edition, 10/23/97, p. 2, p. 9.
  6. Interview with Armando Quintanilla, 2/15/00.
  7. Committee for Environmental Justice Action, Southwest Public Workers' Union, Resource Center for Community Health and Environmental Justice, "Contamination of Neighborhoods Near Kelly AFB: Information for Residents; Water, Air, and Soil Contamination; Potential Health Effects," June 1999, p. 3-4.
  8. Committee for Environmental Justice Action, Southwest Public Workers' Union, Resource Center for Community Health and Environmental Justice, "Contamination of Neighborhoods Near Kelly AFB: Information for Residents; Water, Air, and Soil Contamination; Potential Health Effects," June 1999, p. 2; Draft letter to Governor George Bush from CEJA, SWPVU, and Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter, RE: Designation of Kelly Air Force Base as a Federal Superfund Site, October 1999.
  9. TNRCC Interoffice Memorandum to Dan Pearson, Executive Director, from Gary Beyer, Project Coordinator, RE: Kelly Air Force Base (AFB) Post-Closure Permit, 11/30/1995.
  10. Letter to Barry Williams, Deputy Executive Director, Office of Waste Management, TNRCC, from Allyn M. Davis, Director, Hazardous Waste Management Division, USEPA, Region 6, Dallas, Texas, 12/21/94.
  11. TNRCC Interoffice Memorandum to Dan Pearson, Executive Director, from Gary Beyer, Project Coordinator, RE: Kelly Air Force Base (AFB) Post-Closure Permit, 11/30/1995.
  12. SWPWU, CEJA, Sierra Club, "Draft Petition for Assessment and NPL Listing," October 1999, p. 4.
  13. Committee for Environmental Justice Action, Southwest Public Workers' Union, Resource Center for Community Health and Environmental Justice, "Contamination of Neighborhoods Near Kelly AFB: Information for Residents; Water, Air, and Soil Contamination; Potential Health Effects," June 1999, pp. 4-5; Roddy Stinson, "Kelly contamination investigation pays off," San Antonio Express-News, 3/22/98, p. 3A.
  14. "Community Groups File Civil Rights Complaint Pertaining to Activities at Kelly Air Force Base," Press Release, May 4, 1999.
  15. SWPWU, CEJA, Sierra Club, "Draft Petition for Assessment and NPL Listing," October 1999, p. 1.
  16. Draft letter to Governor George Bush from CEJA, SWPVU, and Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter, RE: Designation of Kelly Air Force Base as a Federal Superfund Site, October 1999, p. 2.
  17. "Community Groups File Civil Rights Complaint Pertaining to Activities at Kelly Air Force Base," Press Release, May 4, 1999.
  18. "Community Groups File Civil Rights Complaint Pertaining to Activities at Kelly Air Force Base," Press Release, May 4, 1999.
  19. "Community Groups File Civil Rights Complaint Pertaining to Activities at Kelly Air Force Base," Press Release, May 4, 1999.
  20. Interview with Yolanda Johnson, 2/15/00.
 
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