On the Toxic tour with the Southwest Workers’ Union

February 12, 2010 at 9:14 pm Leave a comment

At the end of January, Southern Energy Network staff traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for a week-long training with the Energy Action Coalition. Many of us had never been to Texas, and the opportunity to visit a new place and escape colder climates was welcome!

Our allies and partner group the Southwest Workers’ Union – http://www.swunion.com – were our gracious hosts, connecting us with local organizations and activists, including Fuerza Unida, http://www.lafuerzaunida.org/, a union which formed after Levi’s shut down its local factories. The women of Fuerza Unida prepared delicious Mexican-inspired meals for us throughout the week, but the highlight of the trip was the Toxic Tour and rally, organized with SWU.

Southwest Workers’ Union has been fighting toxic chemical contamination in the groundwater near Kelly Air Force Base, now closed and occupied by private corporations. The Base is practically surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Referred to as the “Toxic Triangle,” the majority of these neighborhoods are occupied by lower-income Latino families, many of which speak Spanish as their primary or only language. Two residents from the area joined us for the tour, sharing their story of what is has been like to raise a family near the base.

Residents suffer abnormally high rates of certain diseases, especially cancer. After realizing there was likely a pattern of disease, SWU organizers went door to door, asking people if a family member, or members, had suffered from a serious illness. The results were heartbreaking. People of all ages had been diagnosed with serious health problems, including many neighborhood children who suffered from leukemia or other cancers.

SWU organizers asked impacted families to place a purple cross on their homes or in their yards – creating a powerful visual of how deeply effected so many in the neighborhood are by the contamination from the base.

Government officials and health authorities have been reticent to take action, insinuating that the illnesses were caused by poor diets and other health habits.

The Air Force has refused to take responsibility as well; though they admitted to using toxic chemicals, they claimed there was no proof that the chemicals had left Air Force property to contaminate the water. SWU and the local residents knew better. They launched a multi-year campaign to force Kelly Air Force Base to stop the use of toxic chemicals and clean up the contamination in the groundwater.

The campaign continues today, even though Kelly Air Force Base has closed and is now used by private corporations, including Boeing. Still, problems persist.

Though the communities are still threatened by contamination and industrial processes, Southwest Workers’ Union’s campaigns have been impactful, and in many ways, successful. Many residents responded to the purple cross campaign, and after seeing how many of their neighbors are suffering, people across San Antonio recognized that Kelly Air Force base was causing harm providing a critical shift in public opinion.

After finishing the Toxic Tour, we learned more about the Southwest Workers’ Union campaigns against new nuclear reactors in the area, and their work to bring more clean energy to San Antonio. SWU has been successful in preventing the construction of a new reactor, organizing communities across the region and exposing the deceitful behavior of the nuclear utility. The company had lied about how much the new reactor would cost consumers, and people were angered to learn that over the long term, nuclear would be much more expensive than anyone had bargained.

Now, SWU is focusing on bringing green-collar jobs to the San Antonio metro area. To show our solidarity with SWU’s campaigns, Energy Action Coalition staff and members joined SWU supporters in a rally outside City Hall, calling on Mayor Julian Castro to move forward with their plan for clean energy, energy efficiency, and reducing our Global Warming pollution. Representatives from SWU, including several high school students and other SWU members, met with the Mayor’s office during the rally.

Toxics and clean energy are linked, though perhaps not directly in the Toxic Triangle. Dirty energy has a cost, and often these costs are disproportionately shouldered by communities who lack the ability to prevent, or escape from, serious environmental health hazards. The Southern Energy Network fully supports the Southwest Workers’ Union campaigns to address toxic contamination and bring clean energy jobs to
San Antonio.

With new nuclear reactors proposed in South Carolina, Georgia, and other Southeastern states, we’re working to make sure our neighbors aren’t paying too much for dirty energy that will put our communities at risk. For more information or to learn about how you can stop dirty energy in your area, visit http://www.climateaction.net.

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Entry filed under: climate justice, green jobs, nuclear, renewable energy, southeast.

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