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San Antonio residents living in toxic Triangle to visit with world-renowned environmentalist

By Tony Cantú

La Prensa de San Antonio — World-renowned environmental activist Wilma Subra — often compared to Erin Brokovich — is scheduled next month to meet with residents living around the former Kelly Air Force Base to help assess what’s making many of them sick.

Residents around the shuttered base — now the 1,800-acre Port San Antonio industrial park — have long complained of mysterious illnesses they blame on chemicals once used at the military installation.

But while U.S. Air Force officials have acknowledged chemical seepage into surrounding soil and groundwater – spending some $300 million on cleanup – no direct link to Kelly has been definitively proven.

The most recently completed study – funded by the Centers for Disease Control and conducted by the Texas A&M Health Science Center – tested soil samples in the Quintana Road neighborhood for the presence of dioxins.

Dr. Thomas McDonald, an associate professor at the university, launched his study this past October, sampling soil from eight homes near the former base. The results of the testing released in February indicate negligible amounts of carcinogens.

“These results indicate that the level of carcinogen chemicals in all of the soil samples is below action levels i.e. these levels are considered acceptable in residential soil and no cleanup is recommended,” the study concludes. “Chemical levels are based on Environmental Protection Agency guidelines,” McDonald explained in a telephone interview.

But residents living in the shadow of the former base complained the testing was not thorough enough, nor were the specific locations of the sampling disclosed as part of the study. As a result, Subra said she plans to visit with residents to help them assess the data.

“I don’t have a specific date, but I will be going there shortly,” she said in a telephone interview from her New Iberia, La.-based namesake chemical firm. “We need to find out the locations where the samples were taken, identify those hotspots and get some remediation to occur in some areas.”

President of Subra Co., the environmental activist received a MacArthur genius grant in 1999 for her work helping communities affected by industrial chemical threats. She was featured last June on the two-part CNN series hosted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta titled “Toxic America.”

Subra noted one of the eight sampling sites showed elevated chemical levels, providing further incentive to assist the community. She also questioned the lack of disclosure on the sampling locations.

“No information was provided,” she said. “Usually, when you receive data you also receive a descriptor of where they were found.”

McDonald defended the location non-disclosure, saying he was following Texas A&M guidelines and protecting residents’ privacy. He also responded to complaints about the limited scope of his study, noting the CDC grant that funded his work totaled a mere $10,000.

“We were just looking at homes,” he said. “We can’t sample at the base; we’re not allowed to do that.”

Robert Alvarado has lived on Baker Avenue off Quintana Road for 45 years. Since that time, his family has mysteriously taken ill – his wife and daughter afflicted with throat cancer and he now awaiting a kidney transplant – as have many families in the region…

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