SAHA’s digging up coal ash at its old Swift site. Neighbors say they’re getting the blowback
For five years he lived near Houston’s Brio Refining Superfund Site, where his wife suffered one of many local miscarriages, and where the entire Southbend subdivision he lived in was eventually razed. He also spent four years selling and servicing respiratory-protection equipment to the hazardous-materials industry. So when dust from the construction project next door to his used-furniture warehouse on San Antonio’s near West Side was followed by nausea and difficulty breathing, he started doing some digging of his own.
He soon discovered that the dust was being generated by the San Antonio Housing Authority and partner Franklin Development, who are excavating a site that was shut down for environmental problems 10 years earlier. SAHA plans to build 252 income-sensitive apartment units on the lot.
Perry had trouble getting answers from SAHA, but a Google search turned up a 1998 Express-News article about the discovery of a thick layer of coal ash left at the site by the former Swift meat-packing plant and slaughterhouse. Swift’s parent company, ConAgra, demolished the building in 1990, and SAHA bought the property in 1994 for $650,000, unaware of the site’s troublesome legacy, according to then-CEO Melvin Braziel. Franklin’s Mark Wanke told Perry in November that the company was just cleaning up coal ash from an old boiler. Perry asked Wanke if Franklin had tested for dioxin, a toxic coal-burning byproduct. Wanke said he didn’t know and told Perry he’d get back to him. Perry is still
When SAHA bought the site, the agency planned to build a warehouse and production facility, but after the coal ash was discovered, they spent $300,000 to put a plastic liner around it, and waited for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (now known as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) to decide what to do with the contaminated waste. The Express-News article reported that the ash was considered an environmental risk because it contained beryllium, which can cause bone and lung damage. Braziel said at the time that SAHA planned to sue to recover its money, but the authority never filed.
The environmental threat posed by coal ash burst into the national consciousness December 22 when a coal-ash dump in Tennessee ruptured, spilling a billion gallons of toxic sludge across 300 acres. The New York Times reported shortly thereafter that “federal studies have long shown coal ash to contain significant quantities of heavy metals like arsenic, lead and selenium, which can cause cancer and neurological problems.” All three of those metals have shown up in 2008 tests of the Swift coal ash. The Times article cited a 2006 study by the National Research Council, which found that coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.”
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich visited the Tennessee site for Huffington Post. “It struck me that I had an unusual taste on my lips and in my mouth. I asked others if they noticed that, and they did. Some experienced scratchy throats, respiratory problems, itchy and burning eyes and tasted what one expert believed to be sulfuric acid,” she wrote, describing symptoms that sound eerily like Fred Perry’s complaints.
Perry says the severity of his symptoms caused him to abandon his warehouse.
“The inside of my mouth will get so bad by Friday that I won’t be able to eat,” Perry said in early December. “You get a bad metallic taste in your mouth, and then your tongue gets sore, and then you get cottonmouth. It doesn’t matter how much liquid I drink, I still have cottonmouth.”
A big, burly 60-year-old, Perry doesn’t look like the type who’d stand to have sand kicked in his face at the beach. He tried to deal with SAHA, Franklin, and TCEQ directly, but found the process frustrating. When he tried to obtain an insurance claim form from Franklin’s Wanke, he says Wanke not only denied his request, but laughed at him and claimed the dust was naturally occurring. Perry also went to SAHA, where he encountered resistance from Chief Operating Officer Deborah Flach.
“I told her I was going to picket the site and give out a hazardous-materials flyer, and then I’m going to start marching through the neighborhood and put them on every door for a 2-mile radius,” said Perry. “Then all of a sudden she calls me and says Major General Valenzuela will come by to discuss.”
The visit from SAHA Interim President and CEO Major General Alfred Valenzuela in early December caused Perry further distress. He says that Valenzuela told him, “I don’t want this to sound like a threat, but I wouldn’t talk to the newspapers about this.” When the Current asked Valenzuela about the alleged quote at a December 30 meeting at SAHA’s office, Valenzuela said he didn’t remember saying anything like that, though he qualified his answer by adding, “I thought [Perry and I] were strictly in the background when we talked.”
Perry’s not the only member of this working-class Mexican-American neighborhood to report problems. Several neighbors on Pendleton Street, which runs along the south side of the site, have complained of complications from the dust since Franklin started its excavation.
“I’ve been having a cough for a month-and-a-half,” Consuelo Chavez told the Current in early January. She says a doctor diagnosed allergies and gave her antibiotics but that they hardly helped. “I haven’t had a cough this long in my life. … What really bothers me is the dust in the house. My furniture is dusty every day … and my blinds [are so bad] I have to throw them away.”
Mary Ramos’s sister, niece, and sister’s grandson came to stay at her house in November, and slept in a back room with the door open because it was a warm night. “They started itching and broke out in a bad rash,” said Ramos, 46. “I don’t have visitors anymore. … I don’t go into the back anymore, and my asthma has been acting up more than usual.”
Richard Ramirez, a 41-year-old mechanic, had to visit an emergency room on January 9. “I haven’t slept in five days; once I lay down I can’t breathe,” Ramirez said, adding that he’d also been coughing up blood. He said winds from the north blow the site dust right into his yard, house, and car. “You step into your vehicle and turn on the AC, and you get a cloud of dust.”
Ramirez, his wife, and two children moved into the house on Pendleton to help take care of his father, David Garza, 79, who was diagnosed with Coronary Obstructive Pulmonary Disease three years ago. Ramirez’s parents have lived in the house for more than 40 years. Garza’s health declined in October. He went into the hospital and was told he had some type of particles in his lungs, but the family says they didn’t request further analysis because they didn’t know about the coal ash at the time.
Like Ramos’s family, Ramirez also complained of a bad rash two weeks before Thanksgiving, six weeks before his nightmarish 28-hour visit to University Hospital’s emergency room. Ramirez spent eight days in the hospital before being released on Saturday. He said last week that he’d been diagnosed with a lung infection and would need a pulmonary specialist.
Ramirez doesn’t have health insurance, and the hospital wasn’t exactly rushing to diagnose him. Six days after he’d arrived, Ramirez was still waiting for tests to determine the cause of his symptoms. An official inquiry by this reporter to see his medical records seems to have catalyzed the process. Ramirez reported later that afternoon that he’d suddenly been assigned a new doctor, who told him he would now see a pulmonary specialist sooner rather than later. Two blood tests were then taken, with results still pending at press time.
Analysis of the Swift coal ash performed for SAHA in the mid-’90s by environmental consultant Fugro revealed that “beryllium is present in the groundwater within the coal ash waste above regulatory levels…” Fugro’s “Remedial Site Investigation” also noted the presence of several “semi-volatile hydrocarbon constituents in the shallow soils and coal ash waste,” including Benzo(a)pyrene, a component of coal tar that TCEQ’s Rick Ciampi — a project manager assigned to the case under the agency’s Voluntary Cleanup Program — says was “the big deal” at the site. “It’s nasty stuff because it doesn’t dilute,” Ciampi said on December 29.
Yet despite these known toxins, the site’s prospects changed dramatically between 1998 and 2006. SAHA VP of Corporate and Employee Relations Melanie Villalobos says the Authority began exploring developing the site again in October 2004, when a Request for Proposals was issued for a developer. TCEQ’s Ciampi gave SAHA a clearance in September 2006 when he wrote that “all soil is below applicable Residential levels” and that “the groundwater that had concentrations above applicable Residential levels were taken 11 years ago, a cap (HDPE liner) has since been installed, and there has not been an ongoing source that has contributed to the contamination. There is no reason in my professional judgement that this site does not meet Remedy Standard A Residential.”
The development decision was finalized in December 2006 when SAHA’s Board of Commissioners agreed to move forward with Franklin Development.
SAHA and Franklin trumpet 2008 tests from environmental consultant Geo-Marine indicating that the toxins in the coal ash are below the protection levels established by TCEQ, meaning that they are not harmful to the public. Perry argues those tests are inadequate, an opinion that’s seconded by more than one environmental expert.
Neil Carman, clean air director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, contests the adequacy of the state regulations and one of the key tests performed by Geo-Marine’s Mark Norman.
“The TCEQ numbers I would question. The agency does a lot of juggling over there,” says Carman, who worked as an investigator for the agency from 1980-92. “I can tell you [the protection levels] are not really protective of the public. They’re protective of industry pocketbooks.”
In an October 17, 2008, memo from Geo-Marine to Franklin and SAHA, Norman writes of one coal-ash sample in which “four metals concentrations (arsenic, chromium, lead, and selenium) exceed their respective Texas-Specific Background Concentration and/or Tier 1 Residential [Protection Concentration Levels]. These metals exceedances preclude the coal ash from remaining on-site.” However, Norman writes, he has ordered “one final laboratory analysis” of the sample in question, a Synthetic Precipitation Leachate Procedure, SPLP. “If the four metals do not leach above their respective Drinking Water PCLs, then the coal ash can remain on-site,” he concludes.
In a November 4 follow-up memo to TCEQ’s Ciampi, Norman writes that the SPLP test showed that none of the four metals leached above their respective Protection Concentration Levels. He goes on to use this as the primary basis for concluding that “the coal ash presents no concerns to human health or the environment.”
Norman says he used to work in enforcement at TCEQ and, in fact, once held the very same job that Ciampi now holds, the same position to which he is now reporting. Norman used the findings reported in the November 4 memo to ask Ciampi if the coal ash could be left on-site. Yet Ciampi said on December 29 that he told Norman that the coal ash still must be removed.
“Everything has to be put into perspective,” says Norman. He compares the presence of toxins below regulatory levels with driving 60 mph on the highway versus driving the same speed in a school zone. “[Metals in the coal ash] are not toxic unless it meets the definition of exceeding a [Protection Concentration Level].”
The Sierra Club’s Carman takes major issue with not only TCEQ’s regulatory standards but with the reliability of the SPLP test.
“It’s a phony test, and we told that to EPA 11 years ago … it is a sham,” said Carman. “That test is pretty much guaranteed to find no problem.”
Carman’s opinion is supported by a study reported in the January 2006 issue of the journal Environmental Engineering Science, which casts significant doubt on the method’s reliability. The study said certain aspects of the SPLP method are “inappropriate,” “unreliable” and that it was “found to underestimate possible risk in most cases.”
Carman says that the Texas Risk Reduction Rules calling for SPLP testing in such cases were set up through a bogus panel under George W. Bush’s governorship. Carman was on the TCEQ stakeholder panel that debated the rules, a panel that he says heavily favored industrial interests. “They’re using industrial standards in residential areas; those rules do not protect public health,” Carman said.
“I’m just the canary in the coal mine,” Perry said. “But I’m at least smart enough to know that this stuff can kill me and the testing [SAHA has] done is not adequate.”
Fred Perry filed an air-quality complaint with TCEQ on November 13. Records show that TCEQ received other complaints on November 26 and December 12. “A second complainant called to allege … she gets large amounts of dust every day inside and outside of her house. She alleges she has to leave her home each day due to the dust. She is worried about her health and if the dust continues she will have to stay somewhere else,” says the TCEQ report of the November 26 complaint.
“A third complainant called to allege she has been getting dust from the nearby construction site also. She alleges the dust is affecting the health of her daughter,” says the December 12 report.
TCEQ investigator Edgar Sawyer visited the site on three occasions – November 18, November 24, and December 11. Sawyer wrote in his report that he observed no visible dust on any of those days. No air testing was conducted. Sawyer recorded the wind on those three days as seven, five, and six miles per hour respectively, a curious anomaly considering that Franklin’s Wanke admitted to some “extremely windy” conditions during that time period when discussing the problem at a January 12 meeting of the neighborhood’s Nogalitos-Zarzamora Coalition.
TCEQ’s December 15 report concludes that “a nuisance condition for dust was not confirmed during the three days Investigator Sawyer was on site. Investigator Sawyer recommends this incident be closed as not confirmed.”
“Without adequate air-sampling information, no one knows anything,” says Conrad Dan Volz, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh, who was brought in to brief Tennessee residents on the disaster there. “As you clean up a toxic site, you get down layer after layer, and there could be a change in the material, it could become more or less aerosolizable … air monitoring should be continuous every day.”
SAHA admits that air testing at the site has occurred exactly one time since the digging began. Geo-Marine’s Norman claims that air-testing isn’t necessary, arguing that if Constituants of Concern are below TCEQ’s “Tier 1 Residential” protection levels then they are “deemed by TCEQ to be protective of the air inhalation pathway and therefore air monitoring... should not be required.”
Sierra Club’s Carman agrees with Volz and further chastises TCEQ for its lax work. “The airborne concentrations can be worse depending on winds and soil. [Coal ash] varies,” says Carman. “That is ridiculous to say one air sample is representative — that is ludicrous. You’re going to get lower sample values if you’ve got lower winds.”
TCEQ media relations person Andrea Morrow refused to grant the Current an interview with Sawyer.
Carman expressed concern that “TCEQ has once again failed to do its job” by not collecting samples. “That is outrageous… I really blame the agency ... The San Antonio regional office, I would put it down near the bottom of the barrel,” said Carman.
Allen Townsend and Diane Lang, president and secretary of the neighborhood’s Nogalitos-Zarzamora Coalition, say their group has been supportive of the development, provided the site is not contaminated, but that they never received a straight answer about the coal ash. Townsend says he talked to former SAHA CEO Henry Alvarez at the end of 2006, and that Alvarez said something like: I was about to tell you there’s no hope for this place, but we just got clearance to go ahead.
“We spoke to Mayor Hardberger [about it] right after he was elected,” says Townsend of a District 5 “Meet the Mayor” event in December 2005. “He said ‘My understanding is that’s pretty bad over there.’” Hardberger’s office failed to reply to a request for further comment.
Perry and several other site neighbors testified about their complaints at a January 12 meeting of the Coalition, but a number of Coalition board members seemed to feel that as long as Geo-Marine’s testing showed potential toxins to be below state regulatory levels, the project should move full-steam ahead. One attendee equated the dust issues to “the price of progress” and told complainants, “You just need to put up with it a little longer.” When Richard Ramirez’s cousin Andres Gamon testified that Ramirez was in the hospital with a lung infection that doctors said could be related to the dust, the account was briefly acknowledged by SAHA’s Flach but quickly passed over.
Perry compared the December 30 meeting at SAHA to Thanksgiving dinner, with a phalanx of SAHA and Franklin personnel on hand around a big conference table. It was at this meeting that Valenzuela finally offered to have Perry examined at the same UTSA medical center where residents from SAHA’s troubled Mirasol project are being diagnosed for health issues. Perry paid to have his own blood draw to test for beryllium in late November. The results came back negative, but he suspects the toxicity of the dust was diluted because it mixed with other dust in the area and his warehouse.
“These bucket excavators miss sometimes; they drop [the soil] around the truck, everywhere. Then they get it mixed into the road dirt,” Perry said. Perry hasn’t taken up SAHA on its offer, though, because the agency would require him to surrender his doctor-patient privilege.
At a January 15 follow-up meeting with most of the same personnel, SAHA agreed to commission Terracon – the consultants who performed the one day of air testing – to sample dust in Perry’s warehouse for dioxin, tests that also returned levels below EPA background and Health-Based Benchmark concentrations.
Geo-Marine’s Norman continues to defend the coal ash as not toxic unless the toxins exceed TCEQ standards.
“The unfortunate situation is that dust is prevalent in any construction project … we’ve found no contaminants in the dust,” said Franklin’s Ryan Wilson. “We’ve bent over backwards to help Mr. Perry with whatever requests he’s had.”
But Wilson admitted during the December 30 SAHA meeting that the only measure Franklin took to contain the dust during the removal process was to water the soil.
“I think what he meant is they’ve bent me over backwards,” responds Perry. “It was dangerous enough for them to remove, but not dangerous enough to take proper care to make sure it doesn’t blow all around the neighborhood … You can choose to undiscover a problem if you want to, and that’s what I think has happened here.” •