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The environmental massacre of Mission Texas
By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer
Updated May 11, 2006 - 9:23:00 PM

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One of many bodegas (warehouses) still present in Mission, Texas, that were used to mix deadly chemicals that have poisoned the people and land in the small town. Photo: Jessee Muhammad
MISSION, Texas (FinalCall.com) - Imagine every second of your day you are inhaling the air of contamination. Imagine continually seeing children being born mutated, disabled, sick, chemically disfigured or not surviving birth at all. You would then feel the pain of the residents of the deep southern Texas town of Mission.

Over nine years ago, Maria Ester Salinas uncovered one of the largest human and environmental disasters in the country.

“The President directs the eyes of the public to look overseas for weapons of mass destruction, but we know where they really are,” Ms. Salinas stressed. “The real weapons are here in the soil of our town, in his home state. They are right in America’s own backyard!”

Baby Sara, born in Austin, Texas. Photos: www.mission-texas.com
According to history, numerous warehouses, called bodegas, were built in the 1940s in the middle of the Mexican-American part of the town. Many railroads were built to run throughout the neighborhoods for shipping and delivering to and from the warehouses. Initially, this excited residents because it presented an opportunity for new jobs, but that excitement soon turned into misery.

Ms. Salinas discovered that those warehouses were being used to house and mix deadly chemicals in their purest form. Once mixed, the chemicals were shipped for use in wars as well as pesticides, but the truth of what was going on was hidden from the community. She also discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was aware of this cover-up since 1980.  In 2001, she joined forces with Chicana activist and Environmental Congresswoman of La Raza Unida, Iris Salinas, who launched a broad campaign to raise awareness about this issue and pressure local, state, and federal representatives to take action.

Ramiro Bourbois, deceased, former worker and nearby resident
Scientific results verified the toxicity found in the small town. One part of the town made the federal registry as a Superfund site and another site was declared the top contaminated site in the state of Texas. According to the EPA, a Superfund site is defined as any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and is identified by EPA as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment.

The county is nearly 90 percent Mexican-American and according to statistics in 1999, 67 percent of all deaths in the county were caused by ailments reported to be chemical contamination-related.

Men such as Leonel Botello and Ramiro Solis were only trying to make a living as warehouse workers in the 1950s. They say they were lied to about what they were mixing and remained in the dark until they witnessed a chemical explosion that hospitalized Mr. Botello.

“We were inhaling all of those poisons, and that’s what started my health problems,” he said. “This is tragic and they won’t give us justice.”

That was only the beginning of what would impact future generations. Thousands of babies started being born with skeletal alterations, multiple malformations, aplasia (skin missing), lupus, mutations, chemical burns, tumors and multiple cancers. Infant mortality, spontaneous abortions and stillbirths began to increase. In one year, 30 consecutive newborn babies died.

The grassy fields began to deteriorate, while trees and vegetation turned deadly. Many of the fruits sold in stores began to cause illnesses and some are still presently sold. But this issue goes beyond Texas. In May of 2001, the United Nations banned 54 chemical contaminants, 12 of which are present in Mission. Dubbed the “dirty dozen,” the 12 chemicals include aldrin, DDT, dieldrin, dioxins and Endrin.

Community activist Maria Ester Salinas?took Rodolfo X and The Final Call on a tour of Mission, Texas. Here she visits Joe Salinas, a resident born defected who lives across from the most toxic site in the town. Photo: Jessee Muhammad
President George W. Bush was notified of the plight of Mission residents while he served as governor of Texas, but activists say he only sent a team from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to “investigate” the sites in the late ’90s. TCEQ reported that they remediated the contaminated sites. However, activists for the Mission Texas Coalition contend that it is a waste of the taxpayers’ dollars since it takes at least $60,000 to test the front and back yards of each home.

“The condition of our people here is saddening and heartbreaking to see,” said Mission native Rodolfo X, Latino representative of Houston’s Muhammad’s Mosque No. 45. “We will continue to back Sister Maria and the people. We demand a change now!” he insisted after touring the neighborhoods and speaking with residents with mutated conditions.

“Their (TCEQ) so-called remediations are of no value to the liberation of my people because it is not eliminating the problem,” Sister Maria stated. “The hazardous material is still in the air and they do not care. Instead of remediations, why don’t they compensate and test the people instead? Justice is not given the poor, but [we] won’t stop fighting.”

She and Sister Iris, who also organizes with students at universities across Texas, have  since taken a strong stand with community residents who have filed lawsuits based on the claim of genocide against corporations such as Union Pacific. Together they have forged alliances with La Raza Unida,/La Nueva Raza, UT MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan), and the United Farm Workers to fight in the halls of the Texas Supreme Court for past, present and future generations.

After years of fighting, the case started in November 2005, despite attorneys representing the corporations calling for a dismissal of the case. After five months of deliberation, the court ruled on behalf of the people of Mission, in what has been deemed the first small step towards justice. Students led protests outside the courtroom and youth involvement has impacted the response of organizations throughout the nation.

“It seems that the dawn of a new day is before us.  With the recent successes in the Texas Supreme Court and with EPA halting their plans for remediation and demolition, it is clear to me that justice indeed achievable.  The collaboration between the community, youth, and organizations have proven essential to this cause.  People have heard about the student movements in France and how successful they've been and now you hear about the student movements right here in Texas and their achievements in campaigns like this one “ says Sister Iris, who also researches and writes about the Mission issue in various publications.

To increase the awareness of the conditions of Mission, Sister Iris developed the Realty Tour program on March 18, where college students statewide visited the Rio Grande Valley. The group included youth organizations from the University of Texas and student activists from India. The delegation toured the facilities, neighborhoods and talked with residents who are still suffering from life-threatening illnesses.

“The participation of the youth have been essential to the successes of the affected Mission community. “ says Sister Iris.  From campaigning about Mission in Austin and across the state to donating part of their Spring Break to the masses of emails sent to EPA and other government officials, the stories of the people of Mission have been carried through dimensions of time and space by a generation of socially-concious, community-oriented, and active youth.”

The hope that these recent successes have given us is a beautiful thing but there is still much more that needs to be changed in Mission.  The recent successes have definitely been a step in the right direction.  But by far the most important achievement of all has been the bridges built between the community, the youth, and other organizations and catalysts for change with the Mission case.   Even an issue of the magnitude of Mission can be tackled if we all work as a team to do it.

You can read more about the Mission Texas Coalition’s campaigns and at Sister Iris’s website, www.mission-texas.com.  Contact: adelita@mission-texas.com.


 


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