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Armando Quintanilla

INTERVIEWEE: Armando Quintanilla (AQ)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas
DATE: April 16, 2002
REEL: 2193

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for a group called the Conservation History Association of Texas. And it’s April 16th, year 2002. We’re in San Antonio, Texas, and we’re visiting with Armando Quintanilla, who’s been involved in some of the efforts to clean up and protect the health of people near Kelly AFB [Air Force Base] here in San Antonio and is also been involved in other efforts to make sure that contamination in other military bases has been corrected. I wanted to thank Mr. Quintanilla for taking this time to talk with us.
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AQ: Well, thank you for being here.
DT: I appreciate it. I wanted to start by asking where things started for you, if there might’ve been an earlier experience that might have introduced you to the outdoors, or to public health issues, anything related to the environment that might have been a starting point for you.
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AQ: Well, my grandfather had a ranch, a small farm, and he used to tell this story of, whenever we were working in the garden, or looking for worms to go fishing. He would pick out a worm and show it to us and says, “This worm is the most important thing in the world. And the reason for that is, although that this worm is tasteless, can’t taste anything, can’t see, is blind; however without this worm there would be no vegeta—no vegetation. And without the vegetation, there would be no stock, we would have no cattle or hogs or whatever. And there also would be no animals, and if there were no animals there would be no human life.” And, that’s the—that’s as far back as I can go as far as learning about the conservation of the environment, the ecology and all of that sort of thing.
DT: And I understand, as you grew up, you eventually took a job at Kelly AFB. Can you tell about your work there and what you did and about your experiences?
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AQ: I started out as a mechanic learner. I—I—I left high school. The teacher said that I would never amount to a hill of beans, so that was fine. I went to work at Kelly, and this was toward the end of World War II, in 1945. I worked there a few months and then, before the World War II was over, I joined the service and spent a few years there. Came back, started off as a—as an apprentice and worked myself through the ranks as an
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aircraft mechanic running up all sorts of aircraft, I worked two hundred different types of aircraft and helicopters, and began to, the white collar work, the system of production control and eventually I ended up in personnel, hiring people and training people and also developing programs people could go into mid-management and executive levels of work. I retired in 1992, after 46 years of service.
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DT: And while you were there, I understand that a lot of chemicals were used in trying to both plate and clean aircraft parts. Can you tell about how chemicals were used and misused?
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AQ: Chemicals were used and solvents, a lot of solvents. Trichloroethylene was used as a degreaser for some of the aircraft parts that–that were dirty, especially on the propeller driven engines that were very oily and very dirty. All kinds of solvents and all kinds of chemicals were being used there at Kelly AFB. We had a solvent vat, a trichloroethylene vat, which was long, I think it’s over 170 feet long and it had a conveyor belt, where the parts would hang from the conveyor belt, go into the different vats until they’d come out
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at the end that they were clean. It’d be, every year, about once a year these vats would be drained. Th—the people would come in during the Christmas vacation and open up the valves of the—this trichloroethylene vats (they called it the Green Worm vats) and they would dump the trichloroethylene, the solvents into the ground. Eventually, those solvents got into the groundwater, which is 15-26 feet, maybe 30 feet deep below the ground. And that currently is under, oh, all of Kelly AFB or most of Kelly AFB. It has affected twelve square miles of groundwater outside the base, it has reached the San Antonio
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River, although at very low contaminated levels. That’s some of the—what some of the chemicals have done. Of course, there were other chemicals that were used there: beryllium. The people were working with parts that had beryllium, and now with the also some depleted uranium that was on the—that was there. The parts had those kinds of metals there. Also, there was work with arsenic, the plating, lots of plating was done at Kelly. Chrome plating was done there. Chromium was used and other chemicals. Those
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sludges were, you know, those chemical vats were emptied and put in the pits, in sludge pits. Again, those sludge pits went down into the groundwater and contaminated the groundwater.
DT: What about fuels?
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AQ: Fuels, there were also a, you know, the fuel tanks were underground and thousands of gallons of jet fuel leaked from those tanks, went into the groundwater, went underneath the railroad tracks and affected the, and were underneath a neighborhood in South San Antonio. That’s the Quintana Road neighborhood. In 1988, the people who had been working on trying to get some drainage for their neighborhood, right there in
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South Kelly, Southeast Kelly. Then finally they got the funds around 1985. they started the work in 1988. While the construction people were digging a drainage ditch there, there were overcome by toxic fumes. Construction was—was halted, the ditch was covered up and just recently, they started the, they started and finished. in fact, in 1998, ten years later, they—they finished, they started the—the drainage project and finished—they’re finishing it right now. That’s how long it’s taken. In the meantime, Kelly put in some temporary measures to draw that petroleum, that jet fuel, out from underneath the people’s homes. However, there’s still some there.
DT: Can we talk a little bit about when these solvents and fuels were disposed of? How is it done and what did people think about he practices at the time?
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AQ: It was common practice, there were no controls, you know, uh, you know. Just like at that time there were no controls. You could change the oil in your car and dump it into the—into the sewer on the street and that’s where it was. Kelly had the large 4000 some-odd acres and they had some sludge pits in places like that—that throughout the base where they’d dump, you know, the waste, chemical solvents and so forth. And some of those waste chemicals and solvents at Kelly were dumped into the underground sewers. I
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viewed a video, developed by Kelly AFB by the civil engineering division, that put a video camera, and put it down the sewers, and the sewers were on fire. You could see it. Same as the kinds of fires you’ve heard about Love Canal and all of that. But those kinds of fires were at Kelly AFB at that time.
DT: And the chemicals that went into the sludge pits, were those pits lined?
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AQ: No, they were not lined. No, t—that’s the reason they leaked through the gravel, through the karst, and into the ground water, which is, like I said before, is 15-30 feet below the surface. Now, it’s very possible for this groundwater and this is one of the reasons that a lot of people—that this groundwater has to be cleaned up. Because the chemicals in this groundwater can leak through to the 600-foot level, where the Edward’s Aquifer is. And that’s our source of drinking water, if there’s a possibility that that could happen here in San Antonio.
DT: Well, now people were first aware of this leakage and the plume that was spreading underneath the base, when, I guess in 1985, they started digging these…
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AQ: In 1988, actually, the people’s became aware that, you know, there was contamination in their neighborhoods.
DT: Were there any health effects that people had seen over the years or any other signs that there was this leak?
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AQ: The people believed that they’re being affected by the fumes, a violent chloride from the trichloroethylene that is coming up through the cracks in the ground. Some people claim that they—they worked in their garden, and using the wells from this groundwater. That groundwater’s not our drinking water, but it used to be. Anyway, that they’re—they’re nails were getting a lot of fungus: that women’s hair was falling out in clumps, that sort of thing. We asked through our congressman, D. E. Hatha, who passed on, to come in, to bring in ATSDR [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry], to what was—you know, if there were any link
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between the chemicals that were underneath the—the house, the people’s home, the air, and so forth. To come in and look at is and—and tell us. The first public health assessment was completed about two years ago and they found very high levels of, or elevated levels of cancers in there: liver, kidney cancers and lung cancers were in that area. They also found out that there was a high rate of low birth weight infants. There was a lot of birth defects in the area. And leukemia. However, they could not tie it, tie that loose contaminants to this area adjacent to Kelly AFB to the contamination because the people were not drinking the contaminated water.
DT: But, they had in the years past?
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AQ: In the years past, yes they had. But, currently, they were not. This is still being worked on, in fact, tonight there’s going to be a meeting from the Kelly RAB [Restoration Advisory Board]. Dr. Katherine Squibb, from the University of Maryland, is making a—a review of the ATSDR reports, and I believe Dr. Squibb is going to come up with questions, some of the methods that was used by ATSDR. I don’t think that they used the proper testing methods, and we’ll learn about that tonight.
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DT: Can you talk about some of the efforts to clean up this plume once they realized it was spreading and was causing health problems?
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AQ: Well, when the people realized that, you know, something was wrong, Kelly had first denied that the—that there was any contamination underneath the people’s homes. I contended that there was contamination and I filed a claim at a—with Kelly’s office, you know, for damages as a result of the contamination. Some of it was in subsidence. Some of it was because my property values because—were—were going down. There were
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chemicals in that area. Kelly disagreed with my claim, so I went before a judge, the court, to file a lawsuit. The judge said that I had to prove that there was contamination underneath my home there in the South side. So, I dug a well in the front yard of my home and found. First Kelly said—denied that there wasn’t even water in front of my house. We dug the well and found water. Then they (inaudible), well its not contaminated. We tested the well, two different tests. One was done by myself, and the other one was done by Kelly AFB, and we found that there was contamination. The tests
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that I conducted were five to six points per billion of contamination and Kelly’s tests showed ten points per billion. Still, Kelly has denied that that’s not their contamination. So that’s where we’re at. Although, it was the—the contaminants were identical. And that’s where that—Kelly has denied that they contaminated twelve square miles of area. Until just recently, they have taken responsibility for it and they’re starting to develop clean up plans for that—for that—for those—for that neighborhood.
DT: And that clean-up plan, does it just affect the air base?
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AQ: It affects the air base and outside the air base. Twelve square miles outside the air base are contaminated by chemicals, by toxic chemicals from Kelly AFB.
DT: What are they proposing to do?
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AQ: They’re proposing to dr—to drill some horizontal and vertical wells into the hot spots, because they got all kinds of chemicals, trichloroethylene, benzene, PCEs [perchloroethylene], and all that sort of thing that they got some hot spots where they, some hot spots have arsenic and some other spots have benzene and all of that. To drill some vertical wells, take that contamination out and uh—and uh, clean up—clean up—clean it up and then dispose of the water through two creeks. One of them is Six Mile Creeks and the other one is Leon
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Creek. Now, they’ve been doing this from inside the base. They’re drawing the water that’s in this square mile plume and then cleaning it and then disposing it. Half a million gallons a day going to Leon Creek and half a million gallons of water going into Six Mile Creeks after they clean it up. To me, this is a waste of a very valuable resource, that drinking water. The State of Texas has stated that this drinking water is a potential
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drinking water source in case of a severe drought. And we have undergone some severe droughts here, but we can’t drink that kind of water or make up for the water that is not available to us during a drought. So right now they are taking that groundwater out, cleaning it, dumping it, and just wasting it. Eventually, it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. This is, to me, is not right or just. What also is not right or just, or environmentally just, is the fact that the people are paying taxes on their properties at the same rate as non-
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contaminated properties. In other words, our government contaminated this twelve square mile area. It involves 20,000 homes, approximately 100,000 people and those people should not have to pay taxes on property that is contaminated by the federal government. That is—is an environmental injustice caused by Kelly AFB.
DT: Can you talk about the cleanup plan that was chosen versus some of the other alternative, I understood this was sort of a low-ball bid that was chosen among the five that were suggested?
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AQ: There were, one of them was not to do anything, just to let Mother Nature take care of it. This would take twenty to thirty years, you know, just to let it sit and Mother Nature eventually would clean it up. One of the cleanup options was—was about planting trees. The sub—they—they got—they have a scientifically proven that some
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trees can draw the pollution out of the groundwater. I think they’re poplar trees. And this required planting 800 or more trees. Another solution to the problem was drilling horizontal wells and taking the water out, cleaning it, and dumping it into the sewers, which was a waste of water after cleaning it. Another was to put barriers in the groundwater, and these barriers were walls that had iron fil—fillings in it. The water would pass through these iron fillings and clean up the water. That would—that would
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reduce the—the waste of water. They selected this other option of going, using vertical wells into the hot spots, where the highest concentration of the chemicals are, drawing the water out, cleaning it, and—and dumping it into the sewers. And that has not been approved yet by the Texas National Resource Conservation Commission or by the EPA. It won’t be approved, possibly they will not start construction to use that method, even if it is approved by TNRCC and EPA, until about 2004.
DT: Is it a cleanup method that you think is adequate?
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AQ: I think it needs more than, the cleanup method that I think is adequate is the one that draws the water out from this twelve square mile area, cleans it, and reinjects it back into the ground. This is expensive and I don’t think that the Air Force will do this. And I—I have suggested this, this type of it. This is the only way that you will not waste tax dollars by drawing the water out, cleaning it, and then dumping it into a creek or into a sewer. To me, this is a waster of tax dollars, and a very valuable resource.
DT: Is the cleanup plan extending into the affected neighborhood at all, into North Kelly Gardens, or is it mostly just on the base?
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AQ: Well, the plume extends, you know, goes through North Kelly Gardens, it goes through East Kelly and South Kelly. It’s—it’s twelve square mile area of neighborhoods.
DT: And are they proposing wells for the neighborhoods as well?
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AQ: Yes, yes, into the hot spots. And all of that is going to take years to clean it up. The, they don’t expect it for any of the—the things to be cleaned up in five years, they may get it 90% of the contaminants out in five to seven years, but they still need monitoring in order to get to 100%. They believe that they can get up to 90% in about seven years of the contaminants that are under there.
DT: And is there any sort of health sampling or care that’s included in the cleanup plan?
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AQ: Well, so far, through our activism, we have gotten, obtained from Congressman Rodriguez, and Congressman Gonzalez, two $200,000 grants to give physicals exams to the people that live in those contaminated areas. Anybody who believes that the contamination is affecting them, they can go into that. We have also obtained, through
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our activism, oh, about $9,000,000 from the Air Force, or a little bit more, to set up a clinic in Las Palmas. And that clinic is so the people can go in and get physical exams and all of that sort of thing. It’s a research thing to determine if there’s anyway there’s a link between the contamination from the Air Force and the illnesses that those people are suffering. Whether it be low birth—low birth weights, birth defects, or leukemia, whatever it may be.
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DT: I understand that when you were trying to negotiate a better clean-up plan and maybe also some help for the neighborhoods, you tried to get a super fund listing for the Kelly AFB. Can you talk about that effort?
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AQ: That’s a—a very good question. Kelly AFB was rated a 68.16 and that brings it up to a super fund status. All it requires is a 28.5. However, somehow or other, through politics or some deal that was made between Kelly officials, EPA and TNRCC, they decided not to call Kelly a super fund site and place it on the national priorities list. Kelly, currently, is not being cleaned up under circle of the law that covers superfund sites, but under RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act]. And, that’s taking too long. They’ve known about the contamination since the 1980’s, and like I said before, to date they have no plan to clean
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up the—the neighborhood, the plan won’t be approved until possibly this year or next year and construction will not start until about 2004.
DT: And then it’s twenty-five years or more?
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AQ: Twenty-five years before 100% of the contamination is out of the ground, out of the groundwater. In the meantime, they’ll be drawing groundwater out, cleaning it, and dumping it into the sewers or into the creeks.
DT: I understood that getting the information from the government and from EPA has been somewhat difficult and trying to figure out whether it should be covered under CERCLA [Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act] or RCRA [Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] has been hard.
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AQ: Well, we had the Freedom of Information route, and I have gone for one—for one item, that was the superfund site and I finally got the information from EPA and it took years. I’ve also asked for information. How much was Kelly paying TRNCC to—to oversee, to regulate the cleanup? And Kelly would not give me the information so I went through the Department of Engineers who was doing it, through DOD, and finally got the information. It took—it took about six months to get it. A very long time. Recently I
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asked for some information on beryllium, how were the worker’s exposed to beryllium, after about a year of it, you know, the information became available, and said we have it here for you, but it has taken us a lot of research to get it. It was available all the time. Well, they said they had done a lot of research and I had to pay $1000 for the research. Well, I did not get it so I did not forward the information on beryllium to ATSDR, who was doing the health studies and that. It is difficult to get things from the Air Force. The
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Air Force normally, either on public meetings that are held concerning the contamination, they usually do not answer the questions directly, or ignore the public comment. And that’s a fact.
DT: And why is that?
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AQ: Well, they want to look perfectly pure and clean, you know. They didn’t do this and they have very good public relations people, a big staff of this. That’s their job, you know. Anything that comes up is going to come out in favor of how great and how good the Air Force is in cleaning up our environment. However, that is not the case. Since the 1980’s, they have known that they contaminated our neighborhoods. Since the 1980’s, they do not have a plan to clean up our neighborhoods.
DW: I’m sorry, can I interject a question on that? You had a career in the Air Force prior to that?
AQ: Yes, I did.
DW: Was your activism motivated by anger, is it a sense of betrayal that you put an entire career into these people and just a thousand yards away, guys were dumping barrels of stuff, whether they knew it or not, and here you’ve devoted your career to this organization and now they’re saying, “We didn’t do anything.” You can answer to that one.
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AQ: You want me to answer to that one?
DT: Yes, please.
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AQ: I worked 46 years for the Air Force and I did a great job for the Air Force. I worked day and night, you know, and—and did well for them and made sure that whatever it is that they needed, they got. I gave it 110%. I retired in 1992, in a—in a contaminated neighborhood and when I started asking for, you know, what can you do about cleaning it up, it wasn’t there. And then the denial that it would take a hundred years, and I only lived about 800 yards from Kelly AFB, for that contamination to reach my home. There was no contamina—that there was no water where I lived, that I lived in
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a little island where there was no water in it. So those kinds of things upset me and—and caused me to be hardheaded and prove that the Air Force was wrong, that my home was contaminated. That they was affecting my property values, the contamination was. And that they should do something about it. They denied all of that, so I had to drill the well, like I said before. Found water in it, found it to be contaminated. Kelly still denies.
DT: Do they claim some sort of national security exemption?
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AQ: No, they did not claim that, they just says—said that the contamination, that, you know, after saying that there was no water underneath my home, after saying that there was no contamination in the water, after I found it, that this wasn’t their contamination. You know, they denied that that cont—they have—they have deep pockets, and those deep pockets comes from taxpayers monies. And they’re using those monies for great
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public relations deal about how great the Air Force, how great a job they’re doing in cleaning up the environment. And in trying to keep bad publicity away from them. They just don’t want to do that. Recently, they have admitted that they did contaminate some of the neighborhoods and that they are placing plans to clean them up. In the North Kelly Gardens, there are areas that they say they did not pollute and they are standing by that.
DT: How do you manage to get their attention, what’s the best way?
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AQ: Well, the best way has been through activism. The Southwest Public Worker’s Union has done a tremendous job. The Committee for Environmental Justice in Action has also done some great good. The little committee that I’m working with is the Committee for Health and Environmental Justice has also done a lot of good, and we have partnered, this little committee has partnered with the Health Department and with the University of Texas Medical system here, uh, St. Mary’s University and Our Lady of the Lake College with the students there and they have helped in—in getting these things
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done, especially in the health issues of these people. And, that’s the—that’s how we have gotten the attention of the Air Force. Another way that we have gotten the attention of the Air Force is through the National RAB Caucus, which is a—a—an organization of all the RAB bases across the United States, through the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in San Francisco, CA, those areas have been very, very helpful. They have allowed us to come before the Department of Defense Environmental Restoration Project and talk to those people and we’ve sort of convinced them that there is a problem that
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needs to be done. In working with the National RAB Caucus and the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, I have learned that the military is one of the biggest environmental polluters in the United States. They own thousands of acres, and they’re not depleting—they’re not damaging the environment with depleted uranium from artillery shells that land in their bombing areas or (inaudible) or those other places, it’s with chemicals, dumping chemicals. In Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the people were drinking water tainted with trichloroethylene from Camp Lejeune, from being dumped. That’s the only place that ATSDR has linked the contamination with some of the illness
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of the people, because the people were actually drinking the contaminated water. That’s the only way—and we haven’t been able to prove it. We’re asking for additional studies on air pollution here at Kelly AFB and those are coming up pretty soon, and we sh—maybe they—maybe there maybe a link—a scientific link to the illness of the people based on the air pollution from Kelly AFB.
DT: Why do think there’s this—seems like a pattern that stretches not just from Kelly AFB, but to other bases around the country.
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AQ: Well, I believe it’s—you know—and this is just my—my opinion on it, the military has, you know, this waste and they want to get rid of it, they dump it into the ground. They have all the public monies that they need to cover it up, not answer the questions directly or ignore the questions from the public. And this is our—and they use our tax money to do this. Not when it comes up to cleaning it up, for instance, right now they’re
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cleaning it up using our tax monies. At Kelly AFB, they’ve expended over 250 million dollars to date. And they still got about 200 or more million dollars to expend to—to finish it up. And yet, some of that clean-up, and they don’t care about this—is taking the groundwater out, a million gallons per day, cleaning it, and then dumping it into the creeks. This is a waste of taxpayers’ dollars, people’s money. And since, you know, our
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pockets are deep, so are theirs. You know, they got the tax monies to do it, and they can cover it up, and they can do things that—that they think are the right way of doing it, which some people don’t.
DW: Just a quick question. When you first got started getting the community involved, did you feel like you were the first person in the community getting involved. Did you have to go knock door-to-door to get people? How did it feel, if you could answer, if you could about that time.
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AQ: It was very hard to do that because a lot of the people were affected or afflicted by the contamination either—you know—worked at Kelly or lived in this particular con—in the contaminated neighborhoods. Kelly was their—was their lifeblood, you know, that’s–that’s their employment. Kelly paid good wages, the people were—were—were receiving good wages, the people—were—at Kelly were—were about 60% Hispanic and they lived in this about 90% Hispanic neighborhood and they didn’t want to point fingers
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or ascribe blame or throw rocks at Kelly AFB when Kelly AFB was providing for them. When Kelly closed, then the people started, you know, joining up. Hey, you know, we’re sick, you know. I have ALS, or whatever the case may be, or leukemia, or low birth weight babies. Then, that’s when it started—then it became easy to get support from the people. But, in the beginning, there was no support. The people did not want to point fingers or ascribe blame or throw rocks at Kelly AFB, because Kelly AFB was providing them with a living.
DT: So has there been a lot of frustration since the base was shut down?
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AQ: Yes, there has been a lot of frustration. In fact, a lot of the people were complaining, Hey, the—the base has shut down and now I’m sh—you know—showing up with rashes or with illnesses that we think are job related, like for instance, hearing losses and that sort of thing because of the noise pollution there at Kelly. But, there was no place to go. Finally, they’re setting up an office where they can go there and claim
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compensation for—for some of those job related injuries. Whether they were for—either from chemicals, or noise, or whatever the case might be.
DT: Well, is there a feeling that as Kelly closes its base and shuts down its operations in San Antonio, that they’re going to abandon the community and just forget about their obligations?
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AQ: This was a—a big concern. And Kelly has shut down. However, because of the activism of the community, Kelly has said that they will not leave the community contaminated. They are going to clean it up. They—we’ve been waiting for twen—eighteen years for them to clean it up, we still got to wait another twenty or thirty more years before it’s done.
DT: When you ask for a better clean-up plan or for improved health care and studies, what is the response from the folks at Kelly? It sounds like they say the problem doesn’t exist or they’re not responsible.
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AQ: For instance, you know, when we asked Kelly officials to—to assist us in compensating for whatever damages there is, whether it’s illness or because of the high taxes we’re paying on property that they contaminated, said that is not within our charter. Our charter is to clean up the—the contamination. So we have to go to our congressmen, and our congressmen are fighting those battles in Washington. Our congressmen that—there have been very helpful in this is Congressman Rodriguez, who lives in the contaminated area and Congressman Gonzalez, who does not.
DT: And when you talk to them, they seem to understand the problem?
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AQ: They definitely understand the problem, but, you know, again, the environmental committees that are there, the—the—the attitudes perhaps of the administration, that we can drink, you know, water that’s up to fifty parts per billion laced with arsenic is all right. That water laced—they have reversed that, the administration has reversed it. When the administration is so anti-environmental, you know, given all of the tax breaks
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and helping the polluters as far as air pollution is concerned, as far as drilling oil in Alaska and all of that sort of thing, we don’t stand a chance.
DT: Why is that?
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AQ: Oh, because the, actually the people that really elect our elected officials are the big corporations. The big corporations is the ones that fund the campaigns for our elected officials. We vote for those people that—that the corporation’s money goes to, and when time comes, actually our—our—our elected officials, whether city, county, state or federal are going to go and help those people that helped them win the campaign, those
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people who gave them the money to win those campaigns. And, our President is, you know, very kind to the oil industry, so we don’t stand much of a chance of getting some new environmental clean-up laws in our area.
DT: So you think it’s a problem with campaign finance?
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AQ: That’s part of the problem, yes. And also, the other part of the problem is the people. A lot of people don’t believe that hurting the environment where the animals are is a problem. Oh, I think differently.
DT: Why do you think differently?
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AQ: Well, I go back to the worm. You know, if we hurt the environment where there’s no animals, eventually it is going to hurt people. It’s going to hurt the human race.
DT: Well, what if you are in a community where people are worried about education and jobs and, I don’t know, the security, police. How can you make the case that environmental issues are important?
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AQ: You can’t. It’s very hard to make the case. Because actually these people, these polluters, are the ones that are furnishing the jobs to the people. So how can the people go out and point fingers to—against the—against the people who’s helping them make a living. Those are the people that provide the jobs. It’s a difficult situation.
DT: Maybe you can tell about some of the examples of when you try and make the case to some of your neighbors that this was an important thing to get involved with. Some of the people, I guess, said yes, some said no. Can you tell us about those experiences?
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AQ: Well, if you’re talking to the young people, you can’t. They need the job. But if you talk to some of the elderly people who have been hurt by this or who are retired or, you know, th—th—they join and—and help out. Right now, there are a lot of people here in San Antonio that are coming up with a referendum, th—th–they want to have to pick up 68,000 signatures in order to stop building over the recharge zone of the Edwards
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Aquifer. That’s where our drinking water comes from. And, there again, you know, some big corporations, Lumberman’s, Temple Incorporated, who owns—who is one of the Fortune 500 companies, has all of that, is the one that wants to build a golf course, three golf courses, or 9000 homes, or 3000 homes and three golf courses, something to that effect. The people don’t want that in their, you know, on top of their drinking water. The homes and the golf courses, the pesticides and the herbicides and the golf courses and the homes there could contaminate the water that they’re drinking.
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DT: Well, I understand that San Antonio is almost entirely reliant on groundwater. Can you talk about some of the issues of, like you say, the PGA Village Development, that there might affect the groundwater that you rely on?
AQ: Well, the other one is the groundwater, the contaminating groundwater from Kelly, you know. It could be—the—the groundwater that is there could seep through to our drinking water, which is the Edwards. The Edwards is 600 feet below. The groundwater is 15-30 feet underneath the ground. That’s that well water.
DT: And they’ve been saying that it’s purged, it’s separated from the Edwards?
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AQ: Yes, yes.
DT: And you think it’s possible for…
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AQ: It is possible.
DT: Chemicals to seep?
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AQ: I believe EPA has said that.
DT: Any other concerns about water supply in San Antonio, either quality issues like you’ve been mentioning or, perhaps, supply issues, shortages during droughts?
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AQ: Well, shortages during drought is bad, you know. We’ve had two droughts, I believe, here in San Antonio, where lawn watering was restricted. We need to do something about that. Conservation comes in right now. Other sources of water come in. And we have to protect, you know, our Edwards Aquifer from it not being polluted. You know, if Edwards Aquifer is polluted, that’s gonna hurt us, you know. Where is the
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water going to come from? That’s the sole source of water. Now we have a small water company in South San Antonio who’s taking water from the Medina River and some of the creeks that lead—lead to it, cleaning that water and supplying the people there in South San Antonio.
DT: Speaking of water, I know that too much water can be a problem as well as too little. Can you talk about some of the issues of flood control in South San Antonio?
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AQ: We have flood control throughout the Bear County. Every time we have a very, very heavy rain, two or three people drown and there’s a lot of damage to peoples’ homes and properties. A study was made here recently and it would take over $200 million, no, $750 million to correct the flood control problems. And we have—the last one that we had was, I think, in October of last year, and it killed three people, those—those flash
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floods. The low water crossings, yes. I’d like to take a break now.
DT: Sure, sure.
DT: We were talking earlier about flooding in South San Antonio and it appears to me, this is probably subjective, but it seems like there are a lot of environmental problems that occur in South San Antonio that are in Hispanic and poorer neighborhoods. And I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences in that….Do you think there’s an environmental injustice aspect to that?
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AQ: Definitely. You know, the people are not participating in, in the—where the decisions are made, although they’ve been affected by the contamination by the federal government and our federal government is cleaning up these areas, the people are not participating in making the decisions to cleanup of their neighborhoods. These decisions are being made by the Air Force, and or by the city in combination with the Air Force.
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Definitely, there are some environmental issues here. The questions of the people, in our—in our public meetings as I mentioned previously, are not being answered or ignored. That’s an environmental injustice issue. The length of time that it is taking to clean up this contamination, these people should not have to suf—to suffer twenty to thirty more years before their properties are cleaned up. And I’m talking about 90%
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Hispanic people there. This—this is environmentally unjust. They should not have to pay their taxes on their properties that have been contaminated by the Federal Government. This is environmentally unjust. And the list is a long one of the environmental injustices that the people are suffering.
DT: You mentioned earlier that some of your forbearers couldn’t go to school in their community. Do you think there’s the same problem that, or they’re just not given the respect because they’re Hispanic?
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AQ: My mother was born in Fredericksburg, Texas, and she lived close to the LBJ Ranch. My grandfather had to sell his—his land, sell his properties there and move into San Antonio so that my mother and her brothers and sisters could go to school here. When I went to school, I was placed in a segregated classroom. I was placed in a group—in a room where there were only Spanish speaking children there. I could speak
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two lang—speak and write two languages, Spanish and English; however, I had to suffer the first couple of years. My mother, as a result of this, fought the system and by the time my brother started school three years later, that school was integrated. My brother did not sit in a segregated classroom.
DT: You think there’s some trace of this carried through now?
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AQ: Definitely. Are you—for instance—for instance, the RAB Board, who talks about restoration of the community and of Kelly AFB of the—from the contamination? All the government officials on that RAB Board are non-minorities. And I’m talking about EPA and I’m talking about TNRCC, I’m talking about the ATSDR and so forth. From the city government, we have one city health official that is Hispanic and that’s tokenism. And that is not environmentally just.
DT: And so, you think that when these, the white folks who are all on these boards look out, they just don’t think feel like they have to respond in a way that they would if it were a white community?
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AQ: Well, they don’t have the empathy. They’re not in these people’s shoes. They’re not living above the contaminated groundwater. They’re not breathing the contaminated air, or th—th—they’re not being hurt by the contamination or paying taxes on properties contaminated. So they’re indifferent to this—to this situations, you know. So what?
DT: So it’s just something that they feel remote from and protected from themselves? I’m curious how you’ve talked a little bit about Kelly AFB is responded to some of your concerns. Can you talk about the EPA and TNRCC, I understand you eventually had to file a federal civil rights complaint.
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AQ: We did file a civil rights complaint because we weren’t participating, we’re still not participating with the bare—with the base clean-up team and they’re the one that make up—making up the decisions to clean up the base. We’re completely excluded from that. That is completely composed of non-Hispanics; there’s not any Hispanics in that group.
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We’re excluded from that area. So, wh—what we’re faced there in our civil rights complaint was institutional discrimination.
DT: What do you mean by that?
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AQ: B—B—B–By th—their own regulation says that the base closure team, this base clean-up team will be composed of government workers. All the government workers are Anglos. That’s what the regulation says. This is the—how they’re fighting us, they’re keeping us from being part of the clean up, of the BCT team, where the decisions are made.
DT: I think you said earlier that something over 60% of the people who worked at Kelly were Hispanic.
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AQ: That’s right, over 60% of that. Most of that 60% were in blue-collar positions. If you looked into the white-collar positions, th—th—th—ah—out of the—all of the white-collar positions, there were only 10-20% Hispanics in there. And if you looked at the high grade positions, the senior executives and the GS-15’s of the high—highest grades, I think they had 60 GS-15’s there and there was only 4 or 5 Hispanics. They had five
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senior executives and they had one token Hispanic executive. That’s just when Kelly was operating. That’s the kind of thing with the, again, that was the Air Force. The problems were facing now is the Air Force, EPA, and TNRCC.
TNRCC, for instance, when we have a debate there in the Kelly Restoration Advisory Board and we’re, you know, trying to convince the Kelly officials, you know, these are our needs, our desires, and I’m talking about the communities desires, the Hispanic’s
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desires. TNRCC usually—usually jumps in on the side of the Kelly officials. And their job is not, on that committee, to take sides with any of them. Their job is to regulate the polluters. It’s not happening. They side with them. On top of this, and this may be an injustice. Kelly—the Department of Defense, is pay—through Kelly, is paying TNRCC to regulate Kelly. And this is one of the reasons, I think, it’s taking so long to clean up those neighborhoods, that twelve square mile area of twenty thousand homes.
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DT: Do you think that TNRCC fears that their cleanup clients and their administration fees are going to be pulled because the air base is paying the note?
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AQ: It could be. It’s possible. I really don’t know, on it, but, it… Again, the facts are that we have waited since the 80’s to come up with a clean-up plan. We won’t have a cleanup plan until a couple of years from now or the clean up of our neighborhoods won’t start in a couple of years and it won’t be completed until about twenty more years.
DT: Well, what about…
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AQ: That’s not right. That’s environmentally unjust. Go ahead.
DT: What was the answer to your civil rights complaint?
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AQ: It’s being investigated. We’ve had it a long time and it’s being investigated. One of the things is that there was a general involved in this—in the complaint—it was against one of the generals and the Air Force was investigating, uh, you know, this general. And the Pentagon was, the Air Force Pentagon. And they hadn’t gotten to it, and this was a year ago. So, again, you know, this civil rights investigation, in some cases, in parts of it, because of the delay could be that the fox is investigating the henhouse. It’s part of it.
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DW: I have a question. Earlier when we were talking, you mentioned about Lois, or Love Canal, for example…
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AQ: Yes.
DW: I know that Lois Gibbs from Love Canal has a group, The Citizen’s Clearing House on Toxic Waste. I was just wondering if you have received any advice or assistance from other national consumer and community activists and environmental groups. Have you ever been offered help? Can you talk to David Todd about that?
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AQ: The people that we have received help from, as I mentioned previously, was the National RAB Caucus, the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, and another one that I haven’t mentioned is the Sierra Club. But we have never talked to Ms. Gibbs concerning Love Canal, any of those areas. We have never also received any grants that could help us in getting that information.
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DT: When you look at the environmental injustice problems that you’ve seen and the slowness of getting help with the cleanup and the health care and so on, what do you think you’re next step could be in getting some of your concerns addressed?
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AQ: Well, we’re doing as much as we can. Our congressmen are working on it. And we’re trying to help ourselves. We’re trying to find ways and means to—to empower us. Right now, I have written a letter to the archbishop here in San Antonio, he has several ch—churches in this twelve square mile area, asking for his help. I’ve asked him to perhaps, through his office we could start a discussion on what is it that we can do to—to
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clean up the area and how can we expedite the cleanup of the area. He has answered back and says possibly this week or next week, he will have a—a little group of people who will start examining as to what we can do, of what the archdiocese can do to help clean up the area. I will give you a copy of this letter.
DT: Have any of the individual priests or parishes been involved in trying to help with these phenomenal problems?
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AQ: No, they haven’t. No, they haven’t. We have one, Father Tony, he has helped us a little bit with, you know, advising the people of this meeting or that meeting. We’ll leave our flyers there at the church and, you know, they’re distributed there and the people do come in and listen to the discussions that are made. But, however, a lot of it is, like I said before, the people bring up the questions, their comments, and they’re either ignored by
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the Air Force officials, or not directly answered. So, we gotta work on that. We gotta get the Air Force to answer our questions more directly, and not ignore.
DT: What about the local hospitals, or doctors. Have any of them taken interest in this?
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AQ: Yes, they have. Yes, they have. We went before the health—the San Antonio Health Department, and we blasted them. At first, Dr. Guerra didn’t want anything to do with—with us, but finally, we—you know, there was a problem, we went before the City Council and Dr. Guerra got involved, Dr. Guerra got the doctors together. We went up and talked to him about the environmental problems, about the illnesses in the
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neighborhoods. The Health Departments also got all their health department people, their nurses and—you know, the people that they go there to them. And we spoke to them and talked—talked to them about our problems. This is being worked on, this is what was the beginning of getting a clinic established to do research and work on it, paid for by the Air Force, on the environmental problems, on the environmental health problems of San
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Antonio. No, we have—we have done well. And all of this was, you know, through help of us—us going up to—to Washington, where the National RAB Caucus and learning from them, learning how to talk to our congressmen and pleading to them, and we—we—we have been seeing some successes in that area, in the health area.
DT: And now, after working with the government, and church, and hospitals, when you go back to your community, to Kelly Gardens, and that neighborhood, what does the neighborhood look like, what are the people saying now, what’s their reaction?
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AQ: Well, the people are saying, nothing’s ever going to come out of this. We’ve had it for twenty years, now we gonna have it for twenty more years. They’re burned out. You know, they saw that our government didn’t do anything or is not doing anything. They did see something positive and that was the fixing of the drainage of the Quintana Road neighborhood. But this is only a small—small part of the twelve square mile area.
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DT: And yourself, what’s your attitude after going through this whole…
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AQ: I’m going to stay with it. I’m going to stay with it. I’m going to work on it until the—the cleanups are in place and the fact that monitoring is needed, you know, for this, for as long as I live, I guess, until—until I’m–I’m sure that justice has—environmental justice has been achieved.
DT: When you look into the future, what do you see as being the big challenges, either in the case of Kelly AFB or in a bigger sense?
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AQ: That’s a big environmental thing that is up. You know, we have always talked about defense and security of our country and all of that sort of thing. However, if we do not secure the environment properly, we do not have environmental security in this country. If we keep polluting the air, polluting our streams and waters, herding the wildlife that is out in the fields, we’re not gonna have a nation at all. We won’t need a
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large department of defense, a large military, because this—won’t be any people. I go back to the worm that we started off in the beginning. You know, this little worm, you know, without this little worm, we would not have any vegetation, without the vegetation, we will not have any animals or stock, without that, eventually, we will not have a human race. We got to secure the environment. Global warm—warming, the pollution of the air, the groundwater, and the—and the preservation of our wildlife, the conservation of our wildlife must be a—a priority now. We have to get laws that give us env—a secure environment, a healthy environment.
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DT: How do you think that you can recruit a younger generation to take on this work and carry it on in the future? You said at one point that it was hard to reach the young people because they need jobs, they don’t want to, I don’t have the time, or they don’t have the inclination because they don’t want to offend their employers. How do you bring in young people?
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AQ: We have gone to two colleges—Our Lady of the Lake Colleges, through their Social—Sociology Department and talked to the students. The students have—have helped us make surveys. What is it that people think; what do they need; where do they feel insecure; what can we do to help those people? In that regard, they—Our Lady of the Lake has helped us bring in some of the top psychologists from this country. Dr. Couch, from the University of Pennsylvania, he came in and we got the people together as to how to deal with this thing, how to deal with our angers and how we could empower ourselves. So you know, we started there getting the students involved, helping us in—in this particular thing. We’ve gone to St. Mary’s, to the law schools. We’ve talked to the law students from there, a lot of them—the law students who are taking up the environmental law are helping us in our endeavors. We started, we’ve planted the seed, we’re beginning to make the people aware, the young people aware…..that, you know, if we done—the environment, they have to do a better job.
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End of Reel 2193
[End of Interview with Armando Quintanilla]