The EPA's Stalin era

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"This may sound like just another Erin Brockovich-style tear-jerker. Enter stage right: Poor people exposed to toxic chemicals who worry that the government is ignoring their plight.

But the story of the hundreds of sick people who live near the former Kelly Air Force Base illuminates an entirely new manner in which the Bush administration has diluted science and put public health at risk. This year, largely in obeisance to the Pentagon, the nation's biggest polluter, the White House diminished a little-known but critical process at the Environmental Protection Agency for assessing toxic chemicals that impacts thousands of Americans.

As a coalition of more than 40 national and local environmental organizations put it in a letter to EPA administrators this past April: "EPA, under pressure from the Bush White House, has given the foxes the keys to the environmental protection henhouse."

So meet lifelong San Antonio residents Robert and Lupe Alvarado. For decades, the Alvarados, whose modest home sits around two miles from Kelly, have lived with toxic chemicals underfoot. This is the poor part of town, adorned with chain-link fences and black metal bars concealing the windows. Many houses lack a proper foundation and rest on simple concrete slabs.

Beneath the Alvarados' house and those of their neighbors are shallow pools of groundwater that are polluted with tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, a chemical associated with cancer, liver and kidney disease. Before the Kelly base closed in 2001, mechanics used PCE to degrease parts on airplanes and fighter jets. For decades, they chronically dumped the solvent into poorly sealed or unsealed waste pits on the base, where it seeped underground, forming a plume that sprawls over four square miles under 23,000 homes and businesses. Locals refer to the area as "the toxic triangle."

On cool or rainy days, when the Alvarados close the windows and shut off the air conditioning, a sweet chemical smell floods the house. When they eat dinner during these times, says Robert, 66, it's like tasting something acrid. "We drink bottled water but there's nothing we can do about the air except go outside and wait," says Lupe, 64.

Robert, a handsome man with almond skin, limps across his cramped living room with a black metal cane. He shows me a letter that recently arrived from the local hospital, congratulating him; he'd qualified for a kidney transplant. A few years ago he suffered a brain aneurysm, causing him to become nearly blind. His wife and one of his daughters both have battled thyroid cancer. "We know at least 15 people on this street alone who have some sort of cancer," says Robert, a former labor relations employee at Delta Air Lines. "We call ourselves the living dead."
In the Alvarados' front yard, a purple cross sticks out of a cluster of banana trees. The crosses, distributed by a local community group, punctuate front yards throughout the neighborhood. They mark homes where people are battling cancer or other illnesses, an estimated 25 percent of households, according to local activists.

Surveys conducted by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have found elevated levels of kidney, liver and cervical cancer, leukemia and low birth weights in the neighborhoods that surround Kelly Air Force Base. A survey by the University of Texas found that 91 percent of adults in the area experienced multiple illnesses, including chronic sinus infections, nausea, heart and lung disease. Based on these studies, the area qualifies as a cancer cluster (with a higher rate of terminal illness, per capita, than areas of a similar size), says Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental health activist based in Louisiana, who has consulted with Kelly community activists.

Although it has conducted limited testing, the EPA acknowledges that it's possible for PCE vapor to rise from groundwater into people's living rooms and kitchens. Yet it says the Alvarados and their neighbors have nothing to fear. Based on EPA air quality tests inside five area homes, the nation's environmental guardian claims that it's safe for residents to live above the plume for the next 40 to 100 years, or the amount of time it will take for the chemicals to naturally dissipate.

The fact is, EPA scientists haven't completed an updated scientific assessment of PCE, including its health risks, for a decade. Worse, a comprehensive review of the carcinogenic chemical may never be coming. Anti-regulatory crusaders inside the Bush White House have peopled the EPA with top officials apparently more concerned with limiting government spending than public health. According to critics within and outside the EPA, the agency has stifled independent research and compromised scientific assessments of all manner of toxins and carcinogens that Americans breathe, drink and touch.

"It feels like Stalin-era Russia, like the administration set themselves up to decide what's allowable science and what isn't," says a high-ranking staff scientist at the EPA, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Until the recent economic crash, this has been such an anti-regulatory administration. One of the ways to undermine regulations is to undermine the science behind them. It's absolutely shocking what's going on." "

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