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SAHA's Dust Still Blowin' in the Wind

Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind. – Bob Dylan, 1962

No one’s died yet, but health complaints on San Antonio’s near West Side continue to mount in the wake of the coal ash that’s been dug up by the San Antonio Housing Authority and partner Franklin Development from their construction project on San Marcos Street. SAHA intends to build a 252-unit low-income housing complex at the site, but neighbors on adjacent Pendleton Street continue to be plagued with problems.

Franklin and their environmental consultant, Geo-Marine, continue to argue that the coal ash is not actually toxic because “constituents of concern” are below the state health protection levels determined by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. This allows SAHA to maintain that the project is following “the letter of the law.”

But evidence that those TCEQ protection levels fail to protect the public continues to mount. Forty-one-year-old mechanic and Pendleton Street resident Richard Ramirez spent eight days at University Hospital last month after contracting a lung infection. He said last week that a doctor told him his arsenic levels are unusually high. Ramirez’ lack of health insurance has made it difficult for him to obtain a primary doctor that could be consulted on his condition, as he gets bounced around the medical system.

A 2008 Geo-Marine test indicated that arsenic was one of four toxic heavy metals present in the coal ash above both the Texas-Specific Background Concentration for Soils, as well as the Tier 1 Residential Soil Protective Concentration Level. Following those results, Geo-Marine Senior Project Manager Mark Norman ordered the controversial Synthetic Precipitation Leachate Procedure (SPLP), a test which returned numbers below the state Protection Concentration Levels for all four metals.

The SPLP is a method that Neil Carman – Clean Air Director for the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter – says is a “sham” that “is pretty much guaranteed to find no problem.” That view is supported by a study in the journal Environmental Engineering Science , which reported in 2006 that the SPLP was “found to underestimate possible risk in most cases.” Carmen, who used to work in enforcement at TCEQ, also told the Current that the TCEQ protection levels in question “are not really protective of the public. They’re protective of industry pocketbooks.”

Salvador Flores, 36, says he starting working for Franklin’s construction crew at the site in August but quit in September after his health declined.

“I started feeling hot and coughing up all kinds of shit. They never notified me that the stuff was contaminated,” said Flores, who also described feeling pressure in his lungs and having trouble breathing. He says he was driving a front-end loader in an open cab, loading the soil that had been dug up, but finally decided he’d had enough and informed his boss — Richard Guajardo of Guajardo Construction — that something was wrong.

“I told [Guajardo] that I felt sick,” says Flores of the Saturday afternoon that he left. When he called back on Monday morning to talk, Guajardo wouldn’t discuss it and told him to just stay home, Flores says. When queried last week, Guajardo said he would look up the work records but did not get back to the Current by press time.

Dayna DeHoyos, a 29-year-old artist and executive curator of the Stella Haus Art Space at Blue Star, has lived on Pendleton Street all her life. The home she shares with her mother is the next one over from Richard Ramirez’ house, directly adjacent to the SAHA site. She says that back in the ‘90s, SAHA wanted to buy the houses on her side of the driveway into the site, but that they only offered an absolute minimum that wouldn’t have enabled anyone to buy a new house.

DeHoyos says she and her mother have been feeling sick and that there’s been constant dust on her porch and car. DeHoyos filed a complaint with TCEQ after she read the Current’s January 21 story, and called District 5 City Councilperson Lourdes Galvan, who set up a meeting between SAHA, herself, DeHoyos, and Fred Perry, who first sounded the alarm about the coal ash after he became ill when dust from the site infiltrated his adjacent warehouse.

DeHoyos says her hopes for the meeting were quickly dashed when SAHA Interim President and CEO Major General Alfred Valenzuela and other SAHA personnel exchanged hugs and kisses with Galvan.

 “So I knew it was a losing situation the moment I walked in,” said DeHoyos. Still, she voiced her concerns about the discrepancy in testing done in the ‘90s and 2008, asking why it’s safer now. She also asked what precautions were being taken to keep the dust from spreading into the community.

 “Basically, that’s when the interrupting started happening and I really couldn’t finish talking,” said DeHoyos. She  says SAHA reps basically clung to the idea that the project has been “within the letter of the law,” even when she asked why so many people are voicing concern if there isn’t anything to look at?

 DeHoyos says she was told that construction will keep going on but that SAHA  is thinking of getting maid services for the community to clean up the dust. “That really upset me – I don’t trust just anyone to come into my house, so that’s absolutely not something I want,” said DeHoyos.

DeHoyos says the SAHA personnel were nice to her but that she told them she was appalled at the hostility they were showing to Perry. She says Valenzuela then objected to the term hostility. DeHoyos says she was also propositioned by SAHA COO Deborah Flach to act as a community liaison of sorts on the issue. “It felt like she was trying to say ‘We want to give you a special relationship so that you’ll like us more.’ It felt wrong,” said DeHoyos.

“Ms. DeHoyos mentioned that many of the homeowners on Pendleton Street were senior citizens that have lived in the area for many years, and that she has grown up there as well,” responded Flach. “In that same conversation, Ms. DeHoyos also mentioned that many of the neighbors had some health concerns but were hesitant in speaking with SAHA.  I then suggested that maybe she could be the point person/liaison to work with them since she was a familiar face that they trusted.”

DeHoyos said the question of medical testing for those in the neighborhood was also brought up, but that like Fred Perry, she has no interest in surrendering doctor/patient privilege, as SAHA would require.

When queried about the current status of the situation in an e-mail, Valenzuela responded that “SAHA has conducted many different tests at the site, all with the same results that there are no health concerns at the site.” He failed to acknowledge a question regarding the Sierra Club’s criticism of TCEQ’s regulatory standards.

As the Current reported two weeks ago [see “Dust mights,” January 21], the SAHA site was shut down in 1998 after the discovery of toxic coal ash from the former Swift meat packing plant. But TCEQ gave the site a green light in 2006 and Franklin spent this past fall excavating some of that coal ash, allowing it to blow around the neighborhood in the process, say neighbors.

 “As of now, Franklin Development and SAHA have met all the requirements that TCEQ requires. However, my main concern is ensuring that my District 5 residents are safe and that the communities we build are safe,” said Councilwoman Galvan in a statement. “I am on top of this matter and will continue to be until we are absolutely positive that the Swift property is free of contaminates that could potentially harm my constituents.” Galvan said she would host a town hall meeting where  residents can talk to representatives from Franklin Development, SAHA and TCEQ.

Someone who appears to possibly be more on top of the matter than Galvan is her District 5 opponent, former Zoning Commissioner Eiginio Rodriguez. Rodriguez visited the neighborhood on a recent Saturday afternoon to speak with residents about the matter and engaged Richard and Adriana Ramirez, as well as this reporter, in conversation for more than an hour.

Rodriguez seemed to demonstrate sincere compassion for the less fortunate as he related tales of other questionable municipal actions around town. He cited the Haven for Hope homeless shelter project, describing an eminent domain situation where he said residents by the site had been told to negotiate or have their homes condemned.

“That’s what I’m afraid will happen to us,” responded Adriana Ramirez.

TCEQ, meanwhile, has become increasingly evasive regarding the entire matter. After Franklin COO Ryan Wilson objected to certain characterizations of the remediation process that this reporter attributed to an interview with TCEQ project manager Rick Ciampi, the Current sought further clarification from Ciampi on the matter. Ciampi originally promised he’d send answers in a subsequent e-mail by January 20, but never did. When queried about Ciampi’s disappearance, TCEQ media-relations person Andrea Morrow replied “We've given you all the information and offered you all the background data. That's all we intend to do.”


Posted by Gschwartz on 2/2/2009 7:26:18 PM
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