Work-Related (Or: How many lives can a carcinogen touch?) 

Los Dos Gilbertos sing a conjunto farewell to accompany a photo slideshow projected near the closed, silver casket. “Hija Mia Nunca Te Olvidare” reads a banner draped over one of the floral arrangements; from the family viewing area, 80-year-old Janie Saenz sobs her daughter’s name. “I remember that,” someone in the Palm Heights Mortuary memorial room says when the constant in the photos, a composed middle-aged woman in oversized, blush-tinted glasses, appears with a young bride and groom.

From the slideshow alone, Mary Lou Ornelas’s life would appear to have been one of celebrations, family milestones, leisure — various snapshots feature smiling guests sitting beside her on a couch in a wood-paneled living room. But the 59-year-old’s life was also one of work; as a single mother of four, she’d often work two jobs, sometimes cleaning houses. And in 1978, she got a job at Kelly Air Force Base. Her family says working there killed her.

The Defense Department disputes the toxicity of chemicals used at its military bases, and had blocked public disclosure of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2001 findings about their carcinogenic risks. In July, a report affiliated with the National Academies of Sciences reaffirmed some of the EPA’s risk assessments `see “Blinded With Science,” August 9-15, 2006`, which may contribute to discussions about the cause of Ornelas’s liver cancer and the San Antonio native’s death on September 3.

What is indisputable, however, is that her career brought her into prolonged contact with the chemical Trichloroethene (TCE), an industrial solvent used to degrease metal parts at the former Kelly Air Force Base’s plating shop, where she worked for 18 years until the base was finally shuttered in 2001.

She appeared in a passage in a March 2006 Los Angeles Times article about TCE’s health risks:

“With her bare hands, she would dip cotton cloths into buckets of TCE and then wipe grease from aircraft parts. The air in the plating shop was a steamy, solvent-rich brew that turned the walls yellow and had a stench that made visitors wince, she said. The exposure made her dizzy and caused outbreaks of scaly rashes. ‘I would scratch and scratch the sores,’ recalled Ornelas.”

Robert Alvarado Sr. put the LA Times reporter in touch with Ornelas, the cousin he grew up with. “We used to go and hear records, oldies but goodies, rock’n’roll, listening to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ together,” he recalls. “She was so happy. If you met her, you’d walk away with a friend.” Alvarado, 64, has lived in the Southside neighborhood surrounding the base for 36 years, and founded the Committee for Environmental Justice Action, a group that has been demanding that the Air Force clean up its former charge, which leaked harmful chemicals into the shallow groundwater beneath some 20,000 neighboring homes, an area known as the “Toxic Triangle.” `See “Containment Policy,” June 28-July 4, 2006.`

Alvarado suffers from thyroid cancer and partial blindness — the result of living above a plume of contaminated groundwater that “migrated approximately six miles off-site to the East and Southeast at concentrations above health-base limits,” the EPA’s website reads. Air Force documents show TCE, the nation’s most widespread water contaminant, is present at 1,400 Defense Department pollution sites, according to the LA Times article.

“It’s never going to change until the government accepts some responsibility because thay came into the neighborhood and opened bases and then they leave everything behind without cleaning it up,” Alvarado said.

But the high incidence of liver cancer, kidney cancer, cervical cancer, birth defects, and leukemia within the ZIP codes surrounding the former base and the need for a full-scale cleanup are only part of the tragedy, Alvarado said.

At one time, Kelly was the Air Force’s oldest continuously operating flying base, and also the city’s largest employer: It had more than 25,000 employees, both military and civilian, and in 1989 its payroll exceeded $721 million. Anyone who worked at Kelly at least a year can get free health services from the city’s Environmental Health and Wellness Center at 911 Castroville Road, just as those who lived near the base at least a year can. Since 2000, only 2000 people have visited the center, program manager and nurse Linda Kaufman said. People just aren’t that informed; and you’d expect a disbanded population of workers might never hear about environmental health issues related to a former employer.

“My mom, she never sought any further information like hiring a lawyer or getting behind a group,” Moran said. Ornelas kept her health concerns to herself, even as late as 2002, when she started vomiting blood. “The LA Times came down and met with her, and she still didn’t want to pursue anything. My mom wasn’t a part of any litigation. She just wanted it to be known that those chemicals were dangerous. She wanted to let other people know that she worked with TCE … with her bare hands, no gloves or anything, she used to put her bare hands in,” he said. “I just don’t think she was involved enough politically to know, even though she’s had a few other friends die from cancer from her shop … Now that we lost our mom, we might get together something.”

“I think this is one of the best times to talk about Kelly,” said Alvarado, who hopes that more former Kelly employees will join the residents’ fight. “Even though my cousin, she’s gone, you know reality strikes and we have proof.”

The family has not received Ornelas’s death certificate, nor any confirmation from doctors about the cause of her

“But it was through direct contact with this stuff,” her son insists. “She was a single parent, no child support, never took any welfare, and she raised us well,” Moran said. “And she worked herself to death for us.”

Ornelas was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery on Monday, alongside her first husband, who died during a tour of duty in Vietnam. l

The Committee for Environmental Justice Action is hosting a Kelly AFB health roundtable at Dwight Middle School, 2454 W. Southcross, Saturday, September 23, 8:30 am-12:30 pm. 922-2420.

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