Blinded With Science 

For nearly two decades, residents of the so-called "toxic triangle" surrounded by the former Kelly Air Force Base have insisted that their illnesses were caused by chemical contaminants used at the military facility. On July 27, a 379-page report issued by the National Research Council on the dangers of trichloroethene (TCE) provided residents with their strongest ammunition yet in a long, wearying battle over the correct interpretation of complex environmental research data.

The NRC, an arm of the nonprofit advisory group the National Academies, entered the fray only after Defense Department officials blocked a 2001 draft risk assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time, the EPA was prepared to raise its estimate of TCE's carcinogenic threat, and to lower the acceptable amount of TCE in drinking water from five-parts to one-part per- billion. The Defense Department raised questions about the reliability of the EPA's findings, and the NRC was brought in as a kind of scientific mediator, to provide an objective analysis of research on the hazards posed by TCE. The NRC did not conduct any research experiments of their own, but by examining data from the EPA, and by incorporating some crucial post-2001 findings, they affirmed a conclusion that the EPA had made five years earlier: TCE is a health threat that must be taken seriously.

For Kelly-area residents, who honor neighborhood cancer victims by placing purple crosses in their front yards `"Containment Policy," June 28-July 4, 2006`, the NRC report merely emphasizes the need for the Air Force to clean up the plume of contaminated groundwater flowing beneath more than 20,000 homes.

"In light of these new findings, we see it as even more important to ensure that we get a real cleanup in the community and address the levels of TCE to make sure they're cleaned up to under one-part-per billion," says Jill Johnston, environmental justice organizer for the Southwest Workers' Union. "It's important that the remediation plans of the Air Force don't just build concrete walls around the problem. We've got to get the toxins out of the community, and we've got to do it even more expediently, because the dangers are real."

“In light of these new
findings, we see it as even
more important to ensure
that we get a real cleanup in
the community, and address
the levels of TCE.”
 

— Jill Johnston, Environmental-Justice
Organizer for the Southwest Worker's Union


Both the Southwest Workers' Union and the Air Force Real Property Agency quickly responded to the NRC's report. On August 2, the SWU organized a press conference and protested outside the AFRPA's offices, demanding a speedy TCE cleanup. That same day, the AFRPA heralded the progress of its remediation efforts, issuing a press release that concluded: "The Air Force is very satisfied with the progress of the cleanup program at the former Kelly and proud to be a partner in the redevelopment of this area in Southwest San Antonio."

While the NRC's report provides a sense of validation for Kelly-area environmental advocates, the very existence of the report illustrates the maddeningly slow nature of the remediation process, and what some residents see as deliberate foot-dragging on the part of the federal government. If the Defense Department had not stymied the EPA five years ago, stricter federal standards for TCE would already be in place.

Even if the EPA responds to the NRC's report with great urgency, as EPA officials insist they will, the Pentagon has bought crucial cleanup time for its military bases, which routinely used TCE as a degreaser to clean equipment. While the Air Force has accepted responsibility for the presence of TCE and other chemicals in the toxic triangle, their solutions have often relied on containing - rather than removing - the contaminants with walls and underground filters.

"They've been using a lot of passive remediation," Johnston says. "Kelly is one of the largest TCE plumes in the country, so we need to take the lead on cleaning that up - doing it effectively and doing it in a way that involves and integrates the voices of the community into the decision making process."

While TCE has been linked to a wide range of illnesses, the NRC found the research on kidney disease to be the most persuasive. "There were some findings post-2001, and the findings generally reaffirmed what we'd seen in the past, that there were concerns in certain areas," says Rogene Henderson, chairwoman of the NRC study. "The greatest concern was in the kidney-cancer area. We did not find as much concern for liver cancer as the EPA document found.

"We always want more research, but we wanted to make it clear that there was enough information now for the EPA to make its risk assessment. That was our bottom line. We found that the evidence of carcinogenic risk, particularly for the kidney, has continued to accumulate since 2001. People are being exposed to it and the EPA should complete their assessment and move ahead."

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