Father Frank heard the call of the Church after spending a year working at a chemical plant in coal-rich Silesia, Poland.
It could have been worse. He tells me of another priest he knows who heard it only after staring at a mule’s ass year after year as he plowed his fields. Not exactly a Road to Damascus event in either case, but for Father Frank Kurzaj the industrial background was perfect staging ground for the ordeal ahead that was Panna Maria, Texas.
While others in Kurzaj’s family kept on with coal, Kurzaj, now the head of San Antonio’s St. Paul’s Catholic Church, wound up in the middle of a fight over toxic uranium mining, processing, and dumping in the South Texas Polish community of Panna Maria in Karnes County.
He counseled parishioners stricken with cancer, couples unable to conceive, labored over the faith-challenging questions that can follow birth defects, and worked with two families near the dump whose children were born dually sexed as hermaphrodites. And he helped organize the Panna Maria Concerned Citizens to help give the community a voice in the public hearings taking place in the late 1980s.
Although the uranium boom that had swept across a wide band of South Texas — from Falls City clear down near Laredo — was already beginning to wane with the collapse of world uranium prices, it was the Chevron dump just west of Panna Maria that remained a huge source of tension thanks to the contaminated water beneath it.
While legal settlements have since sealed many mouths regarding the events of this time (just as a state Department of Health statistical report affectively smothered a more appropriate chromosomal study conducted by a UTMB toxicologist’s study, but that’s for another post), Kurzaj remains candid in his assessment, and cautious in his pronouncements.
Mining can be done, if it is done right, he says. However, the influence of money almost guarantees that public health rides in the back seat.
I spoke with this pragmatic priest last week to hear what advice he may have for San Antonio, preparing to vote on the expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex, and for South Texans, likely to see a significant return of uranium mining activity if the much-trumpeted Nuclear Renaissance ever actually flourishes.
Even if Finland and France each builds a reactor or two, China goes for an additional 20 plants and Japan, Korea or Eastern Europe add a few units, the overall worldwide trend will most likely be downwards over the next two decades. With extremely long lead times of 10 years and more, it will be practically impossible to maintain, let alone increase the number of operating nuclear power plants over the next 20 years. The one exception to this outcome would be if operating lifetimes could be substantially increased beyond 40 years on average; there is currently no basis for such an assumption.]
While the priest's actions in the field have earned Kurzaj veneration of many an anti-nuclear activist, the man is not reflexively anti-nuclear or against uranium mining. His utilitarian approach to nature (the Hawaiian islands were lifted from the sea so people would be able to live there, he suggests during our talk) put him in fairly conservative company.
“My personal view on this issue is that you can do this, if we have these natural resources, they are not given to us that they will stay there,” he said. “The earth serves a purpose and we can use the natural resources to benefit people and humanity, but we have to do it with some kind of respect, with some kind of understanding.”
That respect and understanding was deeply lacking in Karnes County, he says. And he is adamant that residents of Panna Maria were regularly lied to by industry and the state concerning the safety of mining, milling, and dumping.
“The dumping was done over there and people were not aware of the consequences of being in this area. They were lied to, simply by telling them everything is under control.”
It is that experience that suggests to Kurzaj that politics and greed make the safe use of nuclear energy highly unlikely.
He’s learned how language is manipulated to seal a deal. A “leak” becomes “seepage,” and “waste” becomes “by-product.”
“If the water is contaminated and the cattle and people cannot drink it, what this land is for? For nothing. Or if you cannot conceive over there, because genes are damaged? You can live there, you can have a nice home, but you cannot have kids. Maybe you do not want to have kids. That’s okay with me. But maybe you want to have kids. Then they’ll put a big beautiful sign: ‘The historical place of Panna Maria. Polish people came here in 1854 and noboby lives here because it’s contaminated.’”
Of course, people still live in Panna Maria. On the back side of the dump — the side the leak is reportedly on — goats and turkeys are being raised, apparently for meat. This is most likely one of the homes Chevron (or was it General Atomics, who later bought the dump and absorbed the liability?) piped potable water to. No one was home when I stopped by.
To hear from others who lived through the Panna Maria fight, you can check out the testimonies collected by Sharon Stewart as part of her Toxic Tour of Texas.