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KAFB Kills: San Antonio's Toxic Legacy

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My name is Erica Alvarado and I work at Southwest Workers Union (SWU). I interviewed our Executive Director, Diana Lopez, about her experience organizing for environmental justice and the Kelly Air Force Base (KAFB) campaign specifically

Erica: ok so can you tell me your name, your role at SWU (southwest workers union), and your pronouns?

Diana: My name is Diana Lopez and I’m the executive director and I go by she/her/ella.

E: ok so when did you start organizing at SWU?

D: I started at SWU in the summer of 2006 as a youth intern.

E: There were many victories along the way but, what do you think was the “turning point” victory in the Kelly Air Force Base campaign?

D: I came in on the tail end of that campaign as being active. I think during the big turning point was when the military closed down and it was exposed, the reality of the contamination and I think that was a huge turning point. And the people who were here before me and the organizers and the community, they basically put in an interagency working group and it was called like a board of community members and agencies to really be able to oversee that clean up. And when I came in, back in 2006, one of the largest conversations was monitoring where the clean up had been and so for me one of the main pieces was really stating that the health issues were still happening and trying to prove that by bringing in metro health to do studies. By bringing in the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to do trace atmospheric analysis and things like that so that the contamination wasn’t a thing of the past and was continuing to be relevant. So we had to make the case for why it was still important for that interagency working group to be in existence and that the contamination still needed to be cleaned up and that it wasn’t just like a natural attenuation which is used a lot like “it will go away eventually.” Right? Like “eventually” is like 1500 years and part of it is, that's not good enough.

E: How do you think organizing has changed since that campaign? That campaign ended in like 2001, officially. How do you think organizing has changed to now, in 2022?

D: The base closed but there was still monitoring happening after and so the big victory was one, it closed and two, that there was a process for clean up. But the reality was that there was still community pressure that needed to happen right? So we still needed to be at meetings, we still needed to monitor the clean up and so that was what the neighborhood really did. Eventually when that board and the government and the city decided that clean up was going too slow they figured out a way to change the industrial standard. So basically they cleaned up to industrial standards and not residential standards. Which it's literally 10 feet , you know, is a residence from that fence line. And so part of it really got us thinking about-we’re dealing with the same type of contamination and even worse but it's just called differently. So even though the base closed and it was now Port San Antonio we now had to deal with sorta the influx of industrial material that was coming in through like the trains and the planes and trucks. So now we were dealing with a different kind of pollution. Before, it was underground pollution that was causing a lot of this work and chemical pollution and now we were dealing with fracking pollution, air pollution like San Antonio is still in “non attainment” for air quality. And so really it got us to really think about Just Transition and it's like we were able to defeat something but now we're dealing with something much different. And now it feels like the way we organize and strategize is still like-and there's no regulation around those pieces especially around fracking and things like that. And so, partly, the way organizing changed was like “What can we do? How can we create a better quality of life for at least our neighborhood?” and that's when things like sidewalks, you know, was one of my campaigns when I started was adding sidewalks to streets. Adding bus stops with covered areas. Adding a park and a jungle gym in one of the community centers and keeping it stocked with baseballs and things like that. Moving money into communities that have been deemed, or ignored, or basically industrialized and I think like that was part of the way that organizing and the work shifted in terms of what was some of the immediate needs and wins that we could have while still pushing for an industrial regulation standard. And so that's where the emergence of our climate justice work happened because we were dealing with air quality from a form of fossil fuel extraction that was happening right outside of city limits in San Antonio.

E: ok so maybe the way we organize didn’t change but the things we organized for changed?

D: Yes

E So what does it mean to you to organize for environmental justice in “Military City, USA”?

D: San Antonio is a really big city. And the militarism is really ingrained into the school system and I feel like that's the hardest part-that there are familial, cultural connections to the military that are the hardest part to have a topic of, right? And I think when we were doing environmental justice work in the Kelly Triangle we were dealing with the military but many of the community members were still very much supportive of the military itself. So I think that's a challenging piece because not only do we have to address that reality of militarism but we also had to address the reality that it's the same militarism, the government, that knew and knowingly polluted communities. And its that same government that stores chemicals and bombs and things like that, that then have a more violent trajectory in other communities that are just like us, right? In other countries. And I think that's the really deepness of it, is that doing political education is so, so important. And really laying it out in that frame for a person to understand is like ok, you know these particular workers of the site had a job yet workers are ingrained with you know, “don’t speak against your job or you're gonna get fired. You can’t talk about it.” And I think that was a really big challenge when they started to feel the effects of the work they were forced to do and this reality of “while I'm a worker I'm still able to speak about my rights in a way where my job site and my work and my livelihood isn’t at risk” And I think that's an important piece just ensuring that there's that support for people to be able to do that. And I think militarism is so so ingrained and youth organizing is so important because you're able to have these difficult conversations around the military, around patriotism, around violence, around war and all these different things and I think it's tough and it's weird and sometimes it feels like, you know, its a conversation stopper. And I think that’s an important piece of how we address environmental justice is that: you can still be you while still fighting for your basic human rights. And I feel like that's an important piece around you know like a lot of it is just a mind and cultural assurance and a safe space. I think that's why creating safe spaces is incredibly important because then you're able to explore and have these thoughts in a way that doesn't cause a lot of destruction to yourself or become a target. I think a lot of people feel they’ll be a target if they speak against something

E: yes, yeah, it's very taboo to speak out against the military

D: And so I think that's the tough part and we don't often times see the effects of militarism here in San Antonio, we don’t see the effects of war, or we don’t see the effects of these different spaces. I think it’s important to bring that home and have those political conversations so that we’re driving and that we’re connecting the things that are happening outside your fence that have an impact towards people outside of our community. And yeah it's like rivers flow and air moves, like that destruction and that contamination isn’t just zeroed in on a home or anything. It's communal-we all share that environment and so I think, in short, that's the hard part. You know, the military is the largest polluter and I think that's something that's just left unaccounted for and there’s no accountability on that behalf. So I just think that's an important thing to really address when we’re talking about real solutions, real climate action, we also have to hold the largest polluters accountable.

Follow these links to learn more about Kelly Air Force Base's contaminations and the environmental racism perpetuated against the Mexican American neighborhoods in the Toxic Triangle.

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