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Frank Kurzaj

INTERVIEWEE: Frank Kurzaj (FK)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: April 17, 2002
LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2196 and 2197

Please note that the videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. 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 the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in San Antonio, Texas and it’s April 17th, year 2002. And we’re visiting with Father Frank Kurzaj, who has been involved in the struggle and controversy in the Panna Maria and Karnes County area over radioactive waste disposal and also uranium mining and milling. And he’s also done a good deal of theological research on the role of the church and spirituality in environmental protection. And I wanted to take this chance to thank you for participating and welcome.
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FK: Thank you for asking me, for allowing me to share my experience, my–my story in the area of this environmental issue concerning Panna Maria with Texans and the people in the United States.
I was born in Poland in 1951. In two days, I will be 51 years old. And I was ordained a—a priest in 1976 in the diocese of Opole, Poland, that is in the Silesia region. Silesia is the most industrial area in Poland. Before World War II this area was part of Germany. So you can imagine, lots of pollution. In the 80’s, the most polluted region in Europe. Terrible. Infants were, you know, being buried when I was pa—a—assistant
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pastor over there almost every day, a funeral of a—a baby. And the experts, people who knew something about a situation, blamed the environment for the—for the—for the situation. When I came to the United States in 1986, in November, after couple of months, I was assigned to Falls City and Panna Maria as an assistant pastor and at this time, the beautiful people in this area, Falls City, particularly were trying to stop Conoco, a big company. They were in the business of destroying the environment at the time. They were trying to help the people and help themselves by making money from mining and milling and disposing the nuclear waste. And I was only listener, you know, at the time, I was going to the meetings, trying to find out what is happening, asking questions
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to people who were around me. What this is happening? What is this all about? And couple months later, I was assigned pastor to Panna Maria, and we are dealing with the same problems. So, there was a moment when, in our local paper, there was an announcement that there will be a public hearing to discuss the situation in our area and allow Chevron, at the time, to continue the operation. They were looking for license. I found out that they were working without license for ten years. They were renewing the permit—the permit every year, by a telephone conversation, with the, at the time, Health Department in Austin and they were getting the permit. But now, there was a time to have
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a hearing. So, a little friend—maybe five, six people will show up, they would say yes, and we will be able to operate. But I said to myself, I have to do it right. I am a member of this community and I am the pastor over here and we have the right to know something. So maybe we have to do it differently. So after my Sunday worship service, I said, there will be a hearing, and I expect you to be at the hearing because you have some question maybe to ask. Maybe we have to form a little group that people will ask the question on behalf of our group or our community, because we have to know what it happening in our area, what is happening in our environment. Do we have the right to—
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to have kids over here in this area or not. Because I am seeing that some kids are not doing too well, we are burying people, too, who are young, who are children, who are six months old. So maybe we have to find out what’s the cause of this situation, or how is the water in your well, or what is happening to your cows? Do you see that something is not right always? So maybe we have to ask those question together. And a bunch of people showed up, more than one hundred, and we formed a little Panna Maria Concerned Citizens Steering Committee, that was, I believe, seven people. There was a guy who
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knew something about the mining, who was working to—to one of those mines over there so we knew how it was constructed. There was a doctor, a radiologist, somebody who was working in Corpus Christi, who knew something about cancer, so he was a good choice. There were two nurses. They are visiting the people. They are people who are dying of, you know, all kinds of diseases, but some of them, the majority of them are cancer. So, we have to find out why. And this is how this started. In 1988, we wanted to be part of the hearing process as a group. The Hearing Examiner at the time didn’t allow
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us to do this, so we were not able to ask those questions. But after couple of months, maybe six, seven months, there was another hearing. Now we were able to talk to the Hearing Examiner, ask question as a group. We have, at the time, there was a couple of good people who knew what they had to ask for. There were a guy, a farmer, who wanted to know what is happening to his water because he cannot use this water to take care of his cattles and so on. His name was Sam Moczygemba and there was Walter Monica and others. And the people on the Steering Committee they were a pretty sharp crew,
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young people, pretty powerful, eloquent, so there were lots of wonderful questions. And the Hearing Examiner was listening so people were trying to answer those questions, and we knew that we were on the—on the winning side, and we had something to—to—to—you know, offer to this whole issue. That we have a legitimate question, maybe somebody can—can do something with this. And this is how we started and it’s—month after month. We went to Austin, to see our state representatives, to talk to some local people. I was dressed at the time as a priest, with this huge black cassock, you know, and
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walking the capital with a broom, I believe, to—to—to sweep this state, to clean this state. I was proud that we are there, you know, that I am doing something for people in Texas.
DW: I think, myself, it’s pretty interesting how that goes. Do the state police give you a hassle? What is it like to make that kind of action and to go as far as to the state capitol?
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FK: Over the—can I start?
DW: Please, please.
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FK: OK, within Austin we were with some other groups from all over Texas, we were not alone and there was a meeting scheduled with our scheduled presenter and there was also a lunch for the people who participated in this gathering at the time. We have support at the time from Senator Truan, who was very helpful and our—our rep—representative from our area was Ken Armbrister from Victoria, he was also pretty helpful at the time. What—what we wanted to accomplish is to make people aware that we are alive, that we are trying to, you know, do what we supposed to do as members of
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this communities and I as a pastor of this beautiful parish over there. We have wonderful people who—who are taking care of the—of the land for—for one hundred thirty, forty, fifty years. And I believe that they were lied to by the companies, they promised them something that really unbelievable. Not telling them the whole truth. They were all try—trying to tell them that there is nothing wrong here, is everything OK. The money was a big factor, because some people were getting big money for leasing the land. When they started the—the operation over there at the beginning of the 70’s, I believe, they’ll build a
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tennis court for the people, you know, to make them happy. There—there was never a problem to print the raffle tickets for the picnic, annual event, so it was at the bottom, donated by Chevron, you know. Oh, look at them, they’re good, you know, partners, you know, they’re helping the community, they are printing our tickets, you know. And if there was a—a need for some small repair or something, they were always very helpful. Two hundred dollars, five hundred dollars. Sometimes there was more than this, there was maybe even ten thousand dollars for renovating our—our old school. So they were
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trying to be good as possible at the time. But they were making a big mess of this place, you know, operating this place. They were bringing waste from all over Texas almost, because there was—the—the license allowed them to do this. There was no license on the paper, but the second hearing, and finally, the permission from, still the Health Department, later on, the responsibility was given to another department. But—at this time, they get the permission, and immediately, the next—over the next day, they sold this property over to General Atomic. And they don’t have to deal with this anymore.
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They sent one guy from Chevron who’s watching this, that this will, you know, not blow off or disappear, the—the—the—the money turning is going on as its supposed to. But Chevron is out of the business. Now General Atomic, a new company who was dealing with the disposal stuff, in bringing the—the—the—the bad stuff, the—the radioactive stuff from over the—the—the st—state of Texas over there. They were operating with till, I believe 1997 or later. Now we have more than ten million ton of low level. You don’t know if this is low level, lower than low level nuclear waste over there in Panna
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Maria. Sixty-five acres of stuff. This is still going into the ground, because this is how this was constructed. So I believe that the water is being polluted down there, towards Corpus Christi. It’s not too far from San Antonio River. So that’s the reality we are—with—in over there.
DT: Where was this waste coming from? Was it from power plants, was it from medical uses?
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FK: No, no, no. Not medical uses because medical uses, they don’t have this permit to—to dump this over there. But, from—from plants operated in the south part of Texas, from the area around Corpus Christi whether they were trucking this stuff to—to Panna Maria, because you have to have a special permit to—to dump this stuff. And Panna Maria was a perfect place, not too many people. They are quiet, they are Roman Catholics, they will not say anything because they are good people. They want to listen to the word of God and accept the will of God anytime. Everything is the will of God, so if somebody dies, that’s the will of God and we will be OK. Tomorrow will be OK. We have good people
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here all the time, so we don’t have to question them. This kind of attitude. And I was very proud of them, but I knew that I had to ask some questions. WITH the help of the parishioners and they were doing a good job at the time.
DT: What sort of questions did you and Panna Maria Concerned Citizens ask?
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FK: See, we have some young people over there. The problem is, is it possible that through this radiation, very low level, we have some problems with our genes? And a long process, is it a possibility of some damage of the genes? If there is, who’ll have a problems with kids in the future? So, what kind of effect do we have of the radiation of our health. To what degree our water is polluted? How do we monitor the radiation? And we have some documents on this, and we found out that a—that a monitoring was going on, but it was done in a very unprofess—unprofessional way. For example, you are
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monitoring water in your well. The well is constructed, and you are monitoring the—the water from 1970 to 1980. In 1980, you are reaching the level allowed by the state of Texas of some heavy metal or so on, so on. So what do you do? Do you continue to monitor the well? No, you are building a new well, and you are starting from the scratch. You are doing this monitoring. You have good numbers. They are very low, they are OK, according to our standards. But, you are not doing this as supposed to. You should continue on the same well in 1980, 1985, and 19—1989, and so on. So, this is our
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discovery. Something has to be done over here. Now, we have some question a—a—bout the—the monitoring of the radiation of this area. Do monitor this—when—when the monitors are with the wind or against the wind? There is a little difference. What kind of particles you will get when you are putting the monitors against the wind and with the wind. So, this was also our problem. And the—there’s a grass and the—the alpha radiation will—will accumulate in the grass, will go into the food chain, so we want to know, what—what is the level right now? And that—that was—that was the question we
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were asking and they didn’t have all those answers and the answers were a little vague, too. So they knew they had to do something because we were asking a lot of legitimate questions.
DW: I’m sorry, David, but it’s just mind-boggling to me. You actually had a license to load that radioactive—I mean, I know about what they planned for Sierra Blanca, I could see the story started in sort of the middle…
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FK: See, the problem is they use all kinds of levels with the license. This is not low level radioactive. This is lower than low level and nobody knows what a—the effects of this low, low, low levels because with low levels you are dealing with some pipe stuff, with—with almost plutonium stuff. This is not this kind of level.
DT: What were the typical things you’d see going into the disposal site?
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FK: Some pipes, trucks with, you know, all kinds of—of waste. Something what wasn’t allowed to be in one part of the country, one part of the state was poisonous, was radioactive, was not helping the—the—the people in this area, this was dumped in Panna Maria. So Panna Maria was selected as the place that this can be put to.
DT: Can you describe how it was disposed of? Just how the site was constructed and how the trucks were pulled in and so on?
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FK: You have gate and you are bringing the truck from outside, from the area of Corpus Christi, are bringing this truck in. They are going on—on a ramp and there’s a big lake, and they are dumping this into the lake. Because this waste has to be always covered with water, so there’s always a—a—a water on this because if this is dust, it’s all over. So this has to be wet. And keep wet.
DT: And this site was formally mines, is that right?
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FK: Formally mine, later on they did some modification and this was changed into a dumping site.
DT: Can you talk about the confusion between it being a mine and a disposal site and the products going into it being waste materials versus by-products?
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FK: OK. In order to extract the ore, the uranium from the ore, the local ore, you have to use sulfuric acid. And now you can buy this, this is, you know, big money, or you can bring something what can be, in the one area, named waste. So, they know each other, and there was a—a waste, sulfuric acid with some organic stuff in it, in El Paso, when you will bring this to San—to San Antonio and later on to Panna Maria, you will change the name of this. This will not be waste. This will be called now by-product. You are
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using a by-product from one company. They don’t need these anymore, see? They were using this for some—some stuff, they—they don’t have a use for this. But we can use this now in Panna Maria, so they are shipping this in the big systems to Panna Maria. They will have to pay a big a—a—m—money to—to dispose this over there. There will be not permission for them to do this because this is really a waste. But over here this will be a by-product. They can even give this to them for free. Give the own little—put this stuff
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into the ground after they’ve used this for the process. There was a lawsuit, I believe, over there in El Paso, because of this and there was like $500,000 fine for the company who was doing this stuff and they were shipping this to Panna Maria. This is what we find out. And in Panna Maria, this was OK. In El Paso, no; in Panna Maria, it was OK.
DT: Can you talk about the reaction of some of the people in Panna Maria as they started to learn about what was known and what wasn’t known about the waste site?
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FK: See, if you are in a small community, you are like in a—in a—in a tribal area. Everybody knows everybody. There is this doctor, and there is this, you know, lawyer, local lawyer, the—the—the guy who was always asked the question about what should we do. There were the—the people who are responsible for making some decision for the whole community because their father and their grandfather was making the decision for them, too. So there is a very, very close community. And now, a stranger is coming and
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asking a question he shouldn’t ask, so there was a big reaction. But I knew that every time you asking for the truth, you will be killed. You will have enemies. You shouldn’t ask for the truth. You can, you know, smile and be good to them and tell them how good they are, how good this food is and how good Shiner Boch is the best beer in the world and they will be happy. But if you are asking a more specific question about how this operates and how the money comes into this, how did they get this? Don’t ask those
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questions. And this is how the oil companies, and even the—also the—the uranium companies who—people who are looking for uranium, were dealing with the local people. I still remember in—in Falls City and a little lady sitting in a restroom with a lady who just drove into the town with her big Mercedes and she was representing a oil company. And she wanted the lady to sign a paper, a lease, you know, and now, she doesn’t know too much about the law. She will explain, this young lady, very beautiful
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lady, explain to this old lady how this will work and what kind of money she will be making. She’s paid for the lunch, for sure, to—to make sure that she’s on her side. And this is how they were dealing with the people for years.
DT: When people leased their land, did they think they were leasing it for oil and gas or did they think they were leasing it for uranium?
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FK: No, they—they knew what they were leasing this for. But if there was a lease for—for—for oil, for example, they were giving them also some—some good reason and good ideas how they will deal with the property. If we will find oil on your property by January 1990, OK, you will get 1/6 of this profit. If we will find oil on your ground on the 2nd of January, you will get 1/8 of the profit. So, where do you think they will find the oil? At the property, January 3rd. That’s how you deal with the people. Unfortunately, we were
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looking for the oil. Everything was almost ready in December. But we find the oil January 3rd. And that’s you—the—the—the situation. This is how they—the big companies were operating over there. You smile always, you know, give a little dinner. We’re printing the tickets for the raffle for the church. They’re business people. They know how to do this. But really, when they left, they was—they were laughing about
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them, you know. Putting them down. The water around the pit over there in Panna Maria, unusable. So, they build them. Put the houses under the—under their pipes and they give them water for free so they don’t have to take their water from the wells anymore because it was polluted.
DT: What were they finding in the wells?
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FK: That the—the level of heavy metal and the—the—the pollution is—is unacceptable for drinking. The water was unacceptable for drinking. And as you know in Texas, you don’t have to pay for the—for the analysis of water. You request it and they will do it for free, especially within this area. So when we knew this, people started to ask for the—for the analysis and they find out that they shouldn’t drink the water. The water shouldn’t be used for animals. So now, quietly, they build us a—a water, and put water into our houses.
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DT: As these changes came about, as people learned more and, you know, the groundwater supplies were changed and the water quality of this came in and some of the health evidence was being collected, did people’s attitudes change about the companies and about the agencies?
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FK: Not at the beginning. They are good friends, and they know that they are their friends. They are the blessing. They are presented to the people as, you know, the saviors of the world. Now, no more poverty. We don’t have to work in the fields anymore, we will have money and people will take care of us because they are good company. And some were getting the good jobs over there, big money. So, if you have one person working for the company, and you have five, six brothers and mama and daddy and
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grandpa, do you think they will support you? They will ask question if there is anything wrong with the company? No. Because they will be, you know, killing the job of the boy. So, there have to be a big solidarity between the people who have this one working for the company. And they were making sure, the companies, that there is one or two from the different families working for them. Because they want to use the local people, you know. They want to create jobs for the local people. Putting a network together to make sure that nobody will question them. But, the—the power of the church, they
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underestimated this to some degree. People will—will listen to the priest, and even sometimes they will not tell you this directly that they are, you know, in agreement with you, their—their conscience will—will take over and they will, you know, ask the questions between themselves: What should we do, what should we not do. And slowly, they knew that me and the Steering Committee, the people who were asking those questions, that we are on their side. That we really are working to make sure that this area is safe for everybody and for the next generations, too. And we have the rights to ask
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those questions. We’re not putting anybody down, we are not kicking anybody out, we only want to know, do we have a right to stay here. And I told them from the beginning, we will know more about this in ten years. From the beginning. We will not be able to find out anything now because everything is so hidden, so covered up. In ten years we will know more about this. And now, it is almost more than ten years and we know better.
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DT: What have you learned in the preceding ten years?
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FK: That we were used. That we are now stuck with, you know, this waste over there. And that people are afraid to locate in this area. They are doing this, but they are—they are cautious. They don’t know what will happen. Some of them, young families, they moved out. They built a home but they moved out. For—for—for young families, a big investment. Some of them are building house but not necessarily a—a—around the pit, little farther from this. And that’s how it was, and that’s how it is. And it will be for the next thousand years in this area.
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DT: And is this the same pattern as the earlier operation in Susquehanna, in Falls City?
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FK: I believe, in this area, in Falls City, it is worse than in Panna Maria. You know, we are learning when we are doing this every area it’s a new discovery so we know better and the law is changing and so on. But they started in Susquehanna in the fifties. We were looking for uranium because we were in war with the east, you know, with the Evil Empire so we had to have our nuclear bombs. So we were shipping this to Alamosa, to New Mexico.
DT: (?)
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FK: Yeah. From here. And Susquehanna was this place, but this area was polluted, unbelievable. There are all kinds of technologies, Falls City and Hobson little further (inaudible). They are putting the sulfuric acid, under pressure, into the ground to extract uranium. In Panna Maria and in Conoco and in Falls City, they were stripping mine. But over there, they are putting this crazy sulfuric acid into the ground. So you have to imagine what is happening down there, what kind of pollution. There were some numbers
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given us during the hearing, some people were questioning this is—this is the—the—the situation that we—we—in the eighties, they were talking about three hundred million dollars to clean this up. That’s how it is.
DT: Could you tell us about who was operating Susquehanna and what the government role was and the private contract role?
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FK: See, every time there was a problem with this area, people usually lost and did not know who was responsible for what because, as you know, you are buying stuff, tomorrow, you are selling stuff, some part is owned by the government, they don’t want to deal with this anymore. They have the responsibility but now somebody else is taking over and is operating in this area, so they didn’t really know who is responsible for what.
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And that’s the best situation you can be in if you’re a businessman because they cannot tell you that you are the guy who is responsible. So, if everybody’s responsible, nobody’s responsible. And that’s the way it was over there for—for—for years. And later on, they find out that this was theirs, it was theirs until 1960. They were responsible and this was
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moved to another company and now we have to make sure who is responsible for what. And in this Falls City area, Susquehanna was involved and Conoco was involved and Panna Maria, was Chevron and later on, General Atomic, when they sold this property with the license from—from Austin.
DT: I understand there was a third site that’s pretty well known called Conquista that I guess was a Conoco operation. Can you tell a little bit about that?
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FK: It is close because, you know, if you are taking care of a—a—a piece of land and there’s no more, you are going and you are going if there is something more, so one—one area was called Conquista, the other one was Susquehanna , the other one was taking care of Conoco. But they were overlapping sometimes. They were owned from time to time by—by those different entities.
DT: And each of them was mined at one time?
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FK: Yes.
DT: They were involved with the (inaudible)
FK: Exactly. Exactly.
DT: And were they all selected because of the geology of the site or probably because of the communities that were there? Is there a similar pattern?
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FK: I don’t know, probably they were going for the best ore they can have. And we are in this biologically speaking—with lots of wonderful ore, of uranium, as you know. And they decided to use this place to mine this stuff and later on, because there was a place already prepared for dumping, to dispose with leftovers. And if you are getting a pound of yellow cake, you are producing thousands of—of tons of waste. And because of the
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economy, too. The whole environmental, you know, hoopla, no more pollution and so on, people were screaming, saying, we don’t need this here. And the price of the oil went down, for the yellow cake went down, so they stopped operation only because of—of money. There wasn’t profit anymore. But the moment this will come up, they know where to go. We still have a lots of ore over there.
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DT: So it’s just in hiatus right now.
FK: Yeah.
DT: You think it might be reopened sometime?
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FK: It can be opened anytime.
DT: What was your impression about the state and federal agencies after working through the control of some of these sites?
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FK: As you probably know, the state of Texas is one of the five states in the United States, they have the permit from the federal government to watch themselves. They are telling people in Washington that we know how to do the business in Texas, we are watching ourselves. The fox is watching the chicken coop. That’s how it was. So, for example, they have to have a board of experts, what to do with mines like Panna Maria, how to deal with the situations over there in case of emergency. Who is on the board in Austin to—to—to provide those necessary information? The guy who is running the
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show in Panna Maria. That manager from Panna Maria was a member of this board, giving advice to the local government what to do. So there is a little bit con—conflict of interest over here. And we told this during the hearings, I don’t think this is a good idea. You can continue this but how does people have, you know, now to see this. How can they trust the government if the guy we are trying to ask the question over here is the guy who will give us the answers from Austin? So, he was removed at the time. That was a big success for us. At least there will be somebody else. But, people who are in this industry, they know each other. And we are in Texas, so the business in Texas is different
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than the business in New York or in Washington, D.C. We—we know each other. We are friends over here. We don’t need papers. We can have a handshake and that’s the deal, you know. So the people who are making the decision about the license, and the politicians, they can, you know, be approached by the local business people. And now we have the—the lobbyists in Texas. How much money do we spend for one—one legislative session? The lobbyists. Millions of dollars. They have to take those guys to lunch and to dinner and they are there all the time. I talk to some of those lobbyists, too. I
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know them. They have to do their job. They have to make sure that the business, you know, will continue. So they have to pay. I will never—nothing being in—on the paper, there will nobody, you know, show that he gets so much money, but they spend millions of dollars to make sure that they can continue to operate. And what was tragic from my point of view that the health department, in charge at the time of the license for this business, was almost in the pocket of the business. You know how much money they get from the state to operate. You have an agency and they have to operate. There’s not too
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much money. But, if some of those can help you with a little money to operate the—the—the agency, you know, why not to take the money? Only to sign the license for them. The—the situation changed because health department was taking—was a—was a—removed from being responsible for the—for the licensing process for this—for this industry.
DT: And the responsibility was shifted over to Texas Natural Resources Conservation?
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FK: Exactly, exactly, yeah.
DT: Did the approach change?
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FK: Little bit, they were more interested in the real stuff. They were asking the proper questions. They were much more difficult for the business to—to operate as they used to. But, in case of Panna Maria, this was too little bit, too late because the license was given to Chevron. Chevron sold the property to General Atomic and General Atomic was continuing to bring the—the waste to this and they shut this down, I believe, 1997, 1998.
DT: What was your impression dealing with Chevron, Conoco, General Atomic? What was their reaction when you would visit with them and explain your concerns?
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FK: They know that they are—that they are dealing with the guy who is representing the community. They know the importance of the priest in Panna Maria, so they’re very—very polite, very good to you, they’re friends. I know them on a personal basis, I talk to them, you know, I know the families, and so on. But when they are—they are in the—in the—in the place, on—on the property over there, they have to protect the business. They have to do their job. So they have to say that everything is OK. I even went when the
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Chevron was in—in charge over there, I went to San Francisco to see those guys over at the headquarters. Yeah. And I said, I’m the pastor from Panna Maria, I want to ask a few questions, you know, I cannot deal with those guys over there in—in—in—in my—my town. Maybe somebody from here can help us. I am only concerned, I don’t want to change anything. We are happy that they are there, but we want to know, do we have the right to stay there? And maybe somebody in San Francisco will know, will help us. This is what—what I did when I was young, now I don’t think I would be able to do this, I’m too old.
DT: What did you learn when you went out there?
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FK: They were very good to me, too. They ask me, you know, to—to—to their office over there, they treated me with coffee, I believe, they—they—they listened to my questions and my concerns and they said they would take care of this. And I believe there was something, you know, in the paper, there was a message from San Francisco to them that I was there. They knew in Panna Maria that I was visiting the—the headquarter in—
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in San Francisco. But, what was change—did—did—did it change anything? A little bit, maybe. Everything changes something, in some degree. The Steering Committee later on, when they changed, there were three guys, three managers in Panna Maria, all of them good—good people, but they were, you know, protecting the—the—the business and the last one, we said, we—we—we have to go, we have to bring some lawyer because we don’t have any other chance. We are bringing all the media or we have to have the lawyer
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present with us to—to—to do the job that we have to take care of. And, they are trying to have some conversations, we’ve asked to—to make some deal with some consensus. They were promising us certain things on—on—on a piece of paper, but this never materialized. They were—they were really doing something different, they were doing a better job, but we still are left with those ten million tons of—of—of waste over there.
DT: What did you feel the role of some of the elected officials was?
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FK: For—for them, it depends. They need the votes. If this will help them, they will, you know, jump on the wagon and they are with the people, with the situation over there. But, really, money talks, see. So they have to be on both sides. If they see that this is not helping them with the money, they will jump on the other wagon and they will continue with the—with the business. We are in America. We love America. We love the business in America. But, also as Christians, we have to ask those questions so maybe we can help
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a little bit to make the business good, but safe for the people. We have the money. We have the best country in the world. Why we cannot help people to be healthy? If we can make this much safer, why not? Why do we have to, you know, go and help the people in China to be safer over there. We can also help our own people.
DT: You said that it’s, in America, it should be different. Was it different, or similar, in your home country of Poland?
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FK: Poland, I was growing up in a Communist Poland. You know, the environment was not a priority. They didn’t care too much. They were looking for the production and they were, you know, being record—the—the—the records were important. Thousand tons a day, ten thousand tons the next day. What cost? Nobody was asking that question. And this region, Silesia is really in a bad shape. Now in order for Poland to join the European Union, they have to fix this stuff first. If they are getting money from Europe to—to—to
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do something in Poland, the priority is to fix the environment. Because this is—we have to be able to breathe. We have to be able to drink the water. If we don’t have air, we don’t have a water, we are dead. So this is the—the beginning and they are doing a pretty good job right now. But this is causing a lots of unemployment. Lots unemployment. This is also one of the reason why, in Silesia, which was part of Prussia, Germany, till 1945. 1919, part of Silesia became part of Poland, Upper Silesia. Because of the
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situation, the environmental situation, because of the job situation, that there were not jobs anymore, almost one million people moved to Germany. The economy, the environment, one million people. And in Germany, they were considered German citizens according to the German constitution. If you are born in the border of Germany from 1937, you can apply for the citizenship. So not the people from Warsaw, not the people from Krakow, but the people from Silesia, from some part of, lower part of Poland were able to become German citizens. After World War II, they were not allowed to
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travel to Germany, especially to West Germany after ’45. But after ’81, the Solidarity Movement, it was much easier. The Silesian question was always a—a good card in the hand of the Communist government. If they want something from the West, especially from Germany, like money, help, they will say, we will send you 50,000 Silesians, those who are asking for—for visas to go to Germany.
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DW: Earlier in the interview, you had mentioned about the possible threats that come with tackling the powers that would attempt to pollute the environment or disrupt a community. And I’m wondering if there’s a comparison between attempting to make these kinds of changes or instigation that you did in Panama, I’m sorry, Panna Maria, is different from having done it in a time of martial law or under the government in the formerly Communist Poland and if you see any comparisons between the risks that people run when you’re trying to make those changes. I don’t know if that was what you had in mind, David.
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FK: See, when you are a priest, you are this guy who had those ideas in the—in the head that—that you have to take care of, the truth, that you have to make sure that you are good, that the people are good and that beauty is important. You know, all this Christian stuff, it’s important for you, as a priest. It should be. But, now you are dealing with reality, with real people and for—for many of them, this is not necessarily the priority. They don’t want to tell the truth, you know. They don’t—they don’t care much—too
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much about beauty. They care about the pocket, you know, this is what—what is important. And they will try to put you down, or threaten you. I am with my people from Panna Maria at the hearing and they are calling me a Communist. Very easy. It’s a very good word in the United States, if you don’t like somebody, call him Communist, and he is dead. So, why he is here, we have to find out why this guy came to Texas. There was this rumor and I have a letter. They were distributing the letter in Panna Maria, you have
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to find out why is he here. Is he here legally? We have to check his visa. You know, we have lots of people from South America, and they are illegal here. Maybe this guy was shipped by the Communist to destroy our economy. Maybe they are preparing for war and he is the one who has to shut down the mining operation for u—uranium. So, probably he is a Russian spy. See? Beautiful. And, you know, people will—will buy it. Why not? Propaganda works in this way. That’s how it works. You have to put something and now, blew it out. And it works.
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DT: What were the repercussions of this letter?
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FK: Some people were laughing, some people were thinking, probably, yeah, because somebody was talking about this and maybe they know something more, what, we don’t know, so why not? This is how rumors works, you know? In Poland, when you are a Roman Catholic priest during the Communist time, you have a—a special spy assigned to you. You have a special group of people who will follow you. There’s a special bureau. If you want to go abroad, you are talking to a guy, policeman, undercover. And he wants to
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make sure that you are supporting the Communist government abroad. And maybe he’s trying to convince you to become a collaborator. We will give you a passport, but maybe we can see each other from time to time to talk about certain things. See, and this guy is thirty years old, and he’s talking to you at thirty years old. He needs the money because he gets to support his family. He is not doing this for the ideology. He needs the money, so that was—that was his job. And I am a Roman Catholic priest, and I am talking to him as a friend, a brother. Why are you doing this? There will be a time that you’ll hate
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yourself for doing this stuff. I believe your mother and your grandmother are praying for you because they are Catholics, see? You are doing this right now because you need the money. But there will be a time that you will hate yourself so much that you will jump from the window. Commit a suicide. Don’t do this. There was the time when the Solidarity Movement was crushed and there were people in jail. And as a Roman Catholic priest, with my parishioners, I was helping the families of those who were in jail. And I was talking to the guy, the—the one who was trying to find out why I was doing this, I said to him, brother, when you will be in jail, I will help your family, too. I
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will, I guarantee you. And it will be time, not too far from now, that people who are now in charge, will be in jail one day. Because this was crazy. This was unbelievable what we were doing, you know, to—to—to each other at the time of Communist. You cannot keep it for too long, maybe seventy years, but the truth is stronger. You cannot keep this truth—the truth in gray, it will come out. Like Jesus, three days, that’s it. Resurrection. You can put it down, but the truth will always come out. Always. And in the United States, too.
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DT: Can you talk about the, you said there was some deception on the part of the companies that were operating in Karnes County. Is there anyway to compare the scale of the lie that you saw there with the scale of the deception in Poland?
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FK: The only difference I can see that over there the—the pressure was done by the ideology, you know, so to speak. The people were treated in a bad way. If somebody said something, or was asking a question, he was removed from the office or kicked out from the job and so on. In the United States, little dineros. Little money takes care of the business. You can buy this stuff. They didn’t have too much money over there, that may be true, but, not too many. But over here, you are dealing with people buying them. You can buy anybody. You can buy a priest, sure. Maybe we can give you some money, and
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he will be quiet. So some of my friends, not necessarily for private use, but to—to support the church, to buy a new roof for the church. It’s like $20,000. Do you think the parishioners and the priest will be now asking questions if they have a new roof. No. Everything is fine. My brother priest from the neighbor parish was telling publicly that he is checking the property, this area, every day, and everything is fine. He himself goes to this area over there and checking this stuff. I don’t know what he was checking. Every day and everything is fine. So the people will believe him because a priest said it. But he
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is not a chemist. He is not a radiologist. He doesn’t know too much about water. But he’s checking it. You know, if you are priest, you are—you are expert on the Scripture, that’s it. I have some chemical background, but I am not an expert on this. We have to have some experts who will give us the numbers. And we have them in the United States. As you know, some will use their expertise to support the industry. If you have a problem in Panna Maria, you can bring three experts and there will be three different opinions. It depends who’s paying for it. So now, when we were looking for the truth, with the
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support of the government in—in—in Texas, there was assigned $300,000, some of this was money from Chevron, to conduct a study around the pit of Panna Maria. The A—A—American School of Galveston did the study, and Dr. Owl was the primary investigator and we have the result of this preliminary study. One hundred two families from this area were tested and there was a—a group of one hundred people from a different area of Texas and they were compared. The results were compared. And then, do we know that there is a bigger possibility of damage to our genes living in Panna Maria than in any other place in Texas.
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DT: Maybe I could just introduce it. Could you talk a little bit about your impressions of dealing with scientists and some of the medical authorities in trying to identify the health risks or the groundwater contamination?
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FK: Happy to. Every time we were trying to ask those questions, there was always somebody also from the—from the health department from time to time, with a big, you know, map of the terrain and some ideas how this works on our body. W
hat—what are the—the effects of radiation and so on, but they were always trying to use a—a—a big gun and compare this, for example, to X-ray. X-ray is a big shot onto your body, so this—what you are getting over here is nothing, zero. Zero dot zero, zero, zero, maybe one at the end. That’s it. So you shouldn’t be concerned at all. But they don’t
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know and there was the big question. How this zero zero zero zero one affects your body in the long term. You go to a doctor for the one X-ray and you can go for the next one in two, three years and you’re OK. But if you are over there 24 hours a day constantly, what is the effect of the—of the health, nobody knew, there was no study. So when—when you are talking to people who are having some high school education, or maybe some college education, they will—they will think maybe there is a problem. I am a young man, one said. Do I have a right to have children over here? What—what—what—are the—the—the causes of—of—of infertility, miscarriages? Do we have any study done in this area?
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Radiation and miscar—miscarriages? Because we have plenty of this over here. We have problems to conceive. And if—if—if we conceive, we have problems to—to carry with the pregnancy, the run of the pregnancy. Do you think there is any correlation over here, scientists? There is, maybe, can be, you know. They will never say definitely, because they have to protect themselves. There will be nobody who will tell you black white today. That’s the problem and they will tell you something but you really cannot build any—any future on this something because you don’t know what they were telling you. So we are bringing the pieces together and you are making your own decisions. Aha, I
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know that I need water, healthy water, and this water is not good, so maybe I should move or take care of the water in a different way. I know that radiation doesn’t sound too good because, you know, they will bring the big stuff from Hiroshima. This will really problem. But, if you hear radiation now, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, you know that this is not the healthiest stuff what you can get. So you have to ask yourself, you know, put the question always—this—this around you. You are trying to deny this stuff? Is monies coming? You are trying to blame somebody else? God is the problem,
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you know? God is punishing me for something? I was not good ten or fifteen years ago. My father was a heavy drinker, now God is punishing me with my sick—with my kids being sick. And you have a problem solved, God is the cause of the problem. Not the good people from the company who can do the job safer, but they don’t want to because it costs money.
DT: And did you feel the burden was on you and the community to show that there was a health risk rather than a burden on the company or the government to show that it was safe?
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FK: The—the company was approaching the situation. They didn’t want to scare the people. They knew themselves because they were monitoring the workers regularly. They knew themselves that there is a risk. But they never presented the risk to the people. When they were talking to the people outside the facility, everything was perfect. The best place in the whole United States. Because if you go to epidemiological study, and this is what they were always bringing to the people. You have two thousand people in Karnes County and the territory is pretty large. And now you will bring all those faces
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with cancer. You have to remember that they will never die in Kern City. They will die in San Antonio, so the cases from Kern City are registered in San Antonio. There are two or three people who have died in Kern City, and now you will divide this number of death, caused by cancer, by the population and the big huge territory. You are in—in—on the moon, safest place on the face of the Earth. Nothing is happening, everything is great. But when you go to an individual, to particular person, and you will try to find—try to find out what is the cause of this illness, and you will follow him from one hospital to the
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other, you will find out that maybe this is caused by the environment. And in 1990’s, when finally the study of Dr. Owl was released, some people jump on the wagon to (?) some experts to the court and they settled for some money. Because some of the loved ones were—were dead already. And they were getting some money from—from the companies to keep quiet. Before this developed, the—the company was taking care of people’s problem too. If you are losing a cow, and you have problems, you are trying to ask questions, they will tell you, we will take care of the cow. And they will pay for the
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cow. Not the price of the local people. They will give you three times as much. But you are quiet.
[End of Reel 2196]
DT: When we were talking earlier, you were explaining how a great deal of information has been developed from a scientific standpoint and a medical standpoint and the news is not entirely good. I’m wondering how as a priest and a leader in a community like Panna Maria, you would try and make your community aware of this information and get them to act on it?
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FK: When we are talking to people we can go to a different level of a conversation to and when we can ask certain question, you know, like from the medical field, we can talk about the agriculture, we can talk about spirituality. From my Christian point of view, we have to pull all this together, because I cannot separate this. If I am talking about God, then I am talking about his creation. And if I am talking about his creation, I am talking about the—about the people who are running the business, those are also God’s creatures, you know. So they have certain responsibilities to tell the environment. And the—the
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people who are in this area, they have to have a certain approach to how to deal with the problems related to the environment. When I was over there in Panna Maria and this is also very true to Poland and some other places, people don’t have always—always together. They can very easy split, they can be like a schizophrenics, they can think a—a—a—about the death of a child as a problem related to God, not necessary to the chemicals which killed the baby. So it was my problem now as a priest and a—and a Christian in this environment to find out what is the understanding of Christianity among the people. And at the time, I was also interested in doing something in theology and
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finding out what that—what is it, the—the terminology in English, for this—all the different stuff in—in—in—in America. And I decided to enroll in Presbyterian Theology in Austin, to, you know, do some self—u—u—uplifting—to—to study a little bit more, and I find out that they—can be very helpful, good professors. And they were encouraging me to—to ask those questions over there, in Panna Maria, to develop a questionnaire so when—in Austin, I was, for example, trying to find out, what is the image of God in the people over there? And, who is God for them, how they see God, and what God has to do with environment. And I was surprised that there was not too big
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connection. Every time you are coming to environment, the question about the environment, the people will say that’s a political question. Doesn’t have anything to do with religion. And I was surprised. How come? This is a God’s, you know, gift to you, environment. No politician give it to you. You are working with your hands in—in—in this dirt, but—but this is something what was given to you from your parents, and the parents maybe bought it for little money you know at the time when they came here, but this is something that you have to take care of—for, you know. And they didn’t have this connection. I was also asking question in another on my little project. How do they see
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church? What is churches all about? How do they see themselves as a member of their church of Jesus Christ. And they are saying, church is only the building, or church has something to do only with the worship in our church, in the building. But when we are leaving the building, we don’t have to think about what church think about certain things. They can, you know, separate themselves from—from this. And I was still young, so I said, I have to look into this, too, from a theological point of view and do some more study and try to develop a—a—like a short program for small parishes. Because this will be, you know, a problem for the next couple of centuries. We are going from fighting communists to fighting environment now, the—the—the problems related to
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environment. Some will—people who don’t believe in a personal God, they will say, that the environment is now our God and we have to make sure that we protect our environment, like making environment a God almost, see. So I have to make sure that this is not a Christian point of view, a Christian view on—on the situation. There was a—some books written on how Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition causes this problems with the environment because, as you remember from the Book of Genesis, we
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are the people who are receiving from God the gift of the earth, and now we can take care of this earth. And some will say, the way we want to. We don’t have to listen to God anymore, we are the crown of the creat—creation, and whatever we do is fine with God. So we can destroy it. Oh, the thinking of some people. There was also a—a thinking that is coming from more the—the—the Protestant later interpretation of the Scripture, you have this in—in the Bible, too. That there will be a new heaven, a new earth. So why not help God to bring this new heaven and new earth quicker to us, you know? Why do we
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have to wait? Maybe we can destroy it earlier and we will have a new heaven and new earth pretty soon. That was also the—the question, people who are Christians, who are churchgoers, were having these ideas in their head. So, I was working in Austin for three, three and a half years, and I—I prepared a little dissertation entitled Equi-Theology in a Small Parish. I had like five, six gatherings we were the people and they were taking, you know, the different topics and you know, discussing this, how Christianity seeing the
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relationship between God and the environment, the relationship between the church and the environment, what—what we should do and what the church expects from us in—in—in this matter.
DT: When you were trying to inspire your parishioners, would you usually take a theological view and try and make an argument based on Scripture, or would you say, these are public health threats. Your children are ill. Your livestock are getting sick. We need to do something. What strategy would you use?
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FK: When—when you will be dividing this, when you are really fragmented and separated, you are doing exactly what they want you to do. But I don’t want to go this way. I want to see this as—as a unit, so I was developing the questionnaire in the way that there was always like a connection between the health stuff and the biblical point of view. And now I was trying to find out in what direction the answer will go. Do they really see the Bible as something helpful to their decision making process or not. Or they
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have to reject it, you know. And—and how much the money is present in—in all this, because we are serving God or money. Who do we serve over here when we are dealing with this area, with this problems. And it was really good to look at this, and I was having all kinds of people being part of this. I was with young people, confirmation class, fifteen, sixteen years old, and they are in high school and they are discussing these questions, you know. But they are also at home with the parents and the father is also working in the—in the industry, so this young boy is like, split between what he’s
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learning in school and between what is said about this in—at home. But he’s giving me his own opinion and—and it—it was good to see how—how women are taking—what—what kind of approach do they take. And men and—and young people and the changes and the—the differences and it was good to look at these. And based on these, I developed a, like a five topics for a seminar to—to be—to be, you know, presented in a small parish.
DT: Could you give us an example of how you might link a scriptural teaching with a health message?
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FK: If you are in—in the Bible, for example, with the letter of St. Paul to Colossians. He’s the image of invisible God. For Him, everything was created. Him is Jesus. So, if I am talking about people now and I see the Old Testament and the New Testament being one and we are talking about a human being, I am not talking about only myself. I am talking about Jesus, who lives in me. And everything what relates to me, my health, my behavior, I am here to represent Jesus. I am one with Jesus. So if I do something what is
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not glorifying Jesus, what is not making Jesus better and bigger in the eyes of others, I am putting Jesus down. So if I don’t take care of my own health and the creation which supports me, I am doing injustice to Jesus. I am not Christian as I—as I supposed to be. There was the little, you know, movement from—from the Bible to my behavior to my health and so on.
DT: So would that be the same basic scriptural lesson for taking care of creation aside from the health of yourself and your family, but also taking care of the land and the water?
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FK: Sure. And, as you know, Christianity is a very materialistic religion, there is lots of material use in Christianity. You need to have water to be a Christian because you have to be baptized. You have to have food, you have to have bread to receive the Eucharist. The Body of Christ. So, if the water is polluted, how can you be baptized? There is no water. And you cannot be baptized with beer. You have to have water. So you better take care of the water, because without water you cannot be baptized. If you are looking for a
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bread which will be, through the Holy Spirit, changed into the Body of Christ, you have to have something what is not polluted. God doesn’t like to have a polluted bread. He didn’t change polluted bread into His body. He changed bread into His body. So you, as a Christian, have to make sure that this is bread and not a poison, OK. In the Eastern churches, they have this developed in a pretty good way. As you maybe remember, there was this persecution of the Armenian Church by the Turks in 1910. Millions were killed. And now they are in the desert, Christians, and the priest is walking with them, and they
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know that they will be killed, or die from starvation. And the priest, a Christian, is telling the people to kneel and take the dust into their hands and he blesses the dust and he said, eat it, because this is the Body of Christ. Pretty powerful, isn’t it? But the food is coming from the earth, from the dust. So there was no bread around. It’s a—it’s a big statement that the—that the dust and the bread is almost the same. And this can be, and is, in our understanding of the oneness of God with regards to the creation. This is what Christianity is teaching, that God is—is changing everything into His own being, not as
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the—some people will believe, that everything is God, but we can find the—the—the—the steps or the signs of God everywhere. And God is using us, human beings, to be the priests in creation. To treat everything like priest is treating the—the particles, you know, to treasure it. We are more than stewards. We are like priests, who have a special responsibility of looking at everything around. Over there, the moon and the stars. We can take some nuclear star—some nuclear stuff to the moon, but what for? We make it
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worse. So, we have to use our brain. We are smart enough, gift from God. And we have to use our hearts to—to be responsible, to treat not only people as—as—as—a special gift from God, because we are gift to one another, but al—everything what makes us human with a special respect and dignity and all this.
DT: When you were trying to explain this struggle with Conoco and Chevron and General Atomic, did you ever put it in terms of a sort of a Morality Play and talk about how this struggle involved love and charity and serve the community versus greed and sloth, or some of the virtues and sins that might be involved?
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FK: They—they knew that I am a Roman Catholic priest and that I represent the moral side of this whole stuff. But because there were other people involved, too, they were trying to present themselves as—as good guys. They don’t do harm anybody. And, by presenting the—the—the information, giving the information that everything is OK, they make me look bad. That I am after them, but that is not what I am supposed to do, I better take care of my people in church, you know, praying with them, helping them to be a
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good people, to thank them for what they are doing for the community, how good they are for the community, so they were expecting for me to be more on their side than on the side of my people. On the side of the business, not on the side of the people, because they’re not—not—not verbally, but they hope that they will be viewed in the community as the—as the blessing to the community. They don’t rap the community, they don’t take anything from the community, they are giving something to the community. And what I want to tell them, you are blessing to our community, I am blessing to the community, but I can be also pain in the neck. You know, so we better take care of the pain, too,
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before we will know—tell one another how great we are. We have to take care of the pain, especially the pain of the people. And if we are using people, belittling people, laughing at them behind their backs, or manipulating with them, or playing a propaganda to look good, this cannot be accepted. And I, as the guy who is representing Christianity, has to have the eyes and the ears to hear it and listen to this and bring it up with the help of others. Because in certain areas, I don’t know what to ask for. I don’t have the—the proper vocabulary and I don’t have the—the proper things I have to ask about, but I have people who know something about this. And they can read, they can read English, and
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they can write, so why not them to, you know, ask those questions? To give them the right to ask those questions, this is what we want. If you have questions, somebody has to answer this. Maybe not today, but tomorrow, after tomorrow, we have time. We want to stay in this community. We want to support this place. We want to have life over here, want to have children and grandchildren over here. We are not, you know, only here for a couple of minutes, we want to build this place. We don’t want to move to another place. And it was also true that th—they were treating this like a temporary mine, you know, we will be here for a couple of years, we will dig it out, close it and we’ll move to another
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place, to New Mexico, to Australia, because we are in the business of making money by producing uranium. If you will take this out, you will close it, you are gone. You will not switch into something else because you don’t—you don’t know what to do, you know how to dig that stuff out, and you will continue this in some other place. You go to South America.
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DT: Did the people in Panna Maria and Karnes County have a similar attitude when they realized the risks that they were posing to themselves by living there and exposing themselves and their children and livestock to heavy metals and then later, nuclears, that they had few options to leave, perhaps, to stay and try and get the place litigated? What SORT of reaction did the community have after you helped them understand what the risks were and maybe you can talk about how people in Silesia also responded to finding out their communities were quite contaminated.
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FK: Over here in Texas, especially in Panna Maria because I have this experience with Panna Maria, people will not tell you this directly. Some of them, sometimes they will tell you, Father, thank you for what I am doing for us. We cannot be behind you one hundred percent, I cannot talk to the camera supporting you because I have family over here and some people were working over there, so—so leave me out but I have to tell you that I am with you one hundred percent. Some young people who—who–who are vocal and they were asking the questions, some of them are still there, but they are continuing
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to ask those questions. And they are aware of the situation and they talk between themselves and they are, you know, now more aware of the possibility of—of—of damage, you know, caused by this. So I believe this was very, very useful, helpful to the community that we did this. And this is registered. They can go into this. There were some articles written by the local papers and they know that this was happening, so deep in their hearts, this is my—my conviction, they are more aware of—of the situation. They still want to be there, they still want to live there. Some of them left, you know. Not
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everybody is so strong. Some of them left for the protection of my family, my health, my kids, I have to go. Some of them in—in trouble now because they were always outside. They were like the owners of the property, but they didn’t live there. The father was there, now the father is gone, so he’s the guy—the owner is in San Antonio, or Houston, or some other place so the proper—the value of the property went down. So, he’s, you know, my enemy, so he believes that I am his enemy. But slowly, when—when we know more about this we can be, you know, good people to one another. You will not try to sell
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a property to a young family knowing that this can cause the death of the children. See? You—you—you—you are a decent creature. You are not trying to lie to anybody, trying to make some bucks, you know, on—on—on your property. So—so, I believe, in general, this was very helpful to—to—to this area and to Texas. It was a good experience. It still is. I am in touch with the people who are the members of the Panna Maria Concerned Citizens, I see them from time to time. They are telling me what is happening over there,
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who is jumping on the wagon, somebody who was, you know, out of the picture, now he can get some money so he’s jumping on this. Settling with the company. They’ve never—there never will be a—a—big—a—a lawsuit. We were not in the business of lawsuit, I was not in the business of lawsuit. I didn’t want to bring any lawyer to sue the company. In the beginning, there was this attempt to bring Maloney and Maloney from San Antonio, but there’s too much work. So they—they said, we will not touch it. But I—I was never in the business of lawsuits. I only wanted to know, and help the people to
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know what the situation looked like and do we have the right to stay there. What is the prognosis? What is the future for this place? And I believe there is nothing wrong with this. And as a pastor over there, I have the responsibility to do this. In the year 2050, they will go back and they will say, oh, this guy was over there, the pastor, he never asked those questions, he should. He was a Christian, what kind of pastor was he? So I believe, the time I was over there, we—we asked the right questions and now I can sleep.
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DT: Well, maybe you can talk about what effect it had on you as a pastor and as a person, this experience in Panna Maria.
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FK: It was good to work with the people, good people. It was good for me to—to go and see people who were on the opposite side, you know, to—to—to exchange some ideas, to—to question them, to see the reaction, to see how sometimes they are uncomfortable with the answer but they have to say it. You know, I wasn’t over there—the witness of the truth, I don’t want to do anything else to you, brother, I only want the truth. Help me to discover the truth. You are the expert. And they were bringing, you know, their own
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personal little stories, that the children are maybe not 100% healthy and they have to bring also the—the—the—the official numbers and the official statements, and so on. So, coming from Poland, dealing with this stuff to some degree in Poland to—in a little different way, because I was never approached as the guy who was, you know, fighting for my environment in Poland, but I was fighting for the people and with the people to protect the people so they can have a decent life over there. And—and coming over here, I believe this is a—a—a wonderful experience, a—a—a beautiful experience, I was
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honored and really privileged that I was able to be there at the time and it—it was a blessing to me. Because you always have something, you know. There is always this battle going on between good and evil all the time. And we will be in San Antonio, in Houston, in Dallas, in Austin, you will have to always deal with those questions. With the help of God, I want to—I want to continue the—the struggle. I want to be challenged in this area.
DT: Maybe you can explain, did it teach you anything about good and evil, and strength and weakness, in people?
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FK: It always helps—I discover this once again, that evil is not outside of me. The evil is inside of me. The—the border between good and evil go directly to your heart. So if I am talking to you, I am not talking to a perfect person, I am talking to somebody who is good and bad at the same moment. And now we have this struggle inside us. You were working in the company. You are good and bad at the same time. And now the good has to win in you. And it will, if—if you will allow God to help you, because if you are on
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your own with this struggle, you will always choose the easy way out, and this is probably always—you will choose evil. Because the temptation is so big, you know, and it looks so good. It doesn’t look bad, it looks good, it looks normal to do this. Deep inside your heart, you know that this is not the way to go. But—but everybody’s doing this so why I have to be different. I don’t want to be different, I want to be like everybody else. I
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don’t want to take a stand over here, it’s too difficult. But you should, and you—if you will, you will really be happy with yourself. You will. Because you are doing something that is right.
DT: Can you give an example of somebody who did take the high road, the difficult road, and chose good roads and evil in this context of the fight over the uranium and mining ways?
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FK: I don’t know if I have to use the name, but there—there was a beautiful family, still is, in Panna Maria. The mama was working there, and mama was with lots of friends at the company. They all supported her and the family, too. And I—I knew her very well, she was my blessing over there in Panna Maria. And the boys are tough, good-looking boys and after a couple of drinks, you know, after the—during the picnic, they were
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jumping on me. Oh, I was afraid that something will happen to me. But, with the time on, we are buddies, we are friends, and—and—and she is the blessing to the community. And a couple of times, she told me, Father, I thank you for—for what you did for us, because now I see a little more. So this was a—a big achievement for me, personally, because she is also, you know, seeing the situation as—as—as something you have to be concerned about. There can be something wrong and we have to, you know, be
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responsible, ask questions, try to find out what we should do. We have some people with knowledge in this great state of Texas. They should help us. If they have the answers, they have to give it to us.
DW: Let’s say that they try and try and still they lose the battles. How do they prevent getting burned out? You can always say, well, you do it, it’s the right thing, it’s the good thing, but sometimes you try and feel like you’re running your head up against the wall. How do you keep people going when it seems like it’s almost…
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FK: See, it’s very easy, probably, to—to bring the people together for one meeting. Let’s discuss it. We have a big problem over here. But to bring them over and over and continue this after, you know, losing a battle and so on, it’s not so easy. So, from the beginning, I knew that we’d have to have six, seven people who would be together, who form like a community, like a group. We’ll be on the phone. We’ll be, you know, thinking about other stuff, we will make some notes about what we will discuss during
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our next meeting, what we should do, where we should go. We will listen to the community, to the people of the community. From time to time, we will call them together. We will have the names, in case somebody needs some other names except us. We’ll give them the names, if they want, you know, the names to be released. So we have a small group. We are building something what is powerful. And, we were able to—to—to do this at the time in—in Panna Maria. They still function as a group, Panna Maria
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Concerned Citizens. They see each other from time to time. The—the situation now is little different in Panna Maria because this is closed. There is nothing going on. There is nothing coming into the Panna Maria pit anymore. Now they want to make sure that this is monitoring properly, that there is always somebody there. They are trying to find out how the level of the heavy metal or the radiation looks around and they are informing the people about this. A long process, but people from Austin know, and we know that there is somebody from the local people who is asking the question. Who is monitoring, they
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are not sleeping, they are asking—still asking the questions. And if people like you want to know something about what the situation look like, I will give you the telephone and you can talk to them.
DT: Tell me what the role of the media was in this. They are often the custodian of information, the messenger of some kind of general education. Were they helpful with the local paper, or the San Antonio paper, or the TV stations that are seen in that area?
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FK: When you are in Panna Maria, you are with a—a—a small group of people and the relatives are in San Antonio. The mother or the grandmother is there, but the kids, sometimes five, six, seven of them, with grandchildren, are in San Antonio. So, in order to do something over there in Panna Maria, you have to have money or you have to have the media. But, who’ll talk about Panna Maria in Panna Maria? Nobody. You have to talk about Panna Maria in San Antonio. You have to talk to the relatives. So I was also
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conducting some meetings with the people who have some roots in Panna Maria over in San Antonio. In the parishes in the southern part of San Antonio, because this is how they are living right now. And having this, I was, you know, able to—to say something about this, and they were asking questions, because they were losing the value of the property over there. They are the owners, some of them, will be. Or if there is something wrong with the cattles, they will not be able to sell the cattles. So there was—there was a group
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over here in San Antonio who were happy with this, somebody’s asking the questions, but there were also some people who were unhappy because they are losing the money over there, too. But the media is the media. Sometimes they are looking for some little sensation. They are telling the—the whole community of San Antonio that people are dying in Panna Maria and we have to do something with this. They have to make it touchy, you know. For—for me, and for the little group over there, it was helpful, because we were the—the most serious for the people in Austin. They don’t want the
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media. They don’t want to have a bad, you know, reputation that they are doing something not right. Like the state agencies and so on. Because the media will—pe—media people will go to Austin and talk to—to this guy and this guy and he has to be in the camera talking to the whole community about something very sensitive so he sometimes is not sure what he should say because he lose money. So you be very, very careful.
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DT: Can you look into the future? We’ve talked a lot about what’s happened since the mid-eighties in Panna Maria and Karnes County. But as you’ve said, these problems are going to be with us for many years. Maybe you can tell us what problems you think, in an environmental sense, are the big challenges for the future.
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FK: Agriculture and cattles are the situation they are dealing with—the people over there. This is how they are making the money. The whole farming and, you know, agriculture start in Texas, I don’t know, maybe there is a future for these. But right now, we don’t need too much food, you know. We—we are OK. But the people will still be there. They will still do what they were doing for 150 years. Panna Maria will celebrate anniversary in two years, 2004, 150th anniversary of their existence. The same families who were
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there in 1850’s and now still there. And the same names are—are the owners of the properties over there. And we don’t know what will happen, but there’s a great potential in Panna Maria. I believe this, battle with the environment give the people a—a—a new way of thinking about the area. They are like more aware of the fact that they—there is, you know, a possibility of being destroyed from within, so they are, I believe, more aware of it. That they have to make certain steps that—that they will be protected and that the next generation will also be able to use this property for—for their families and
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so on. From the theological point of view, I—I see again a great future for this place. Because if I see Jesus being born in a manger, being killed on a—on a wasteland, and He rose from the dead, being, you know, putting into the grave. I believe that this wasteland, there’s nothing this de—de—destroyed piece of land still can—can—can be used for something, for something good. What good, I don’t know, but it will be good. I don’t know how, but I know that it will be good.
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DT: We often talked to people who say that many of the environmental problems that we have ARE because companies have a quarterly view, a quarterly horizon, time horizon, and elected officials have a horizon of maybe two, four years. And that even parents only see a generation or two ahead. And I was wondering, as a Christian and part of a two thousand year old tradition, what is your time horizon?
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FK: Eternity is my time horizon. And I see eternity not only as clouds and someplace, but I see eternity with this beautiful earth we have over here. This will transform, it will change. But as a human being, I need this stuff. I cannot be a ghost, I will never be a spirit, I will have body, I believe in the resurrection of my body. See, and in order to have body, we have to have access to the stuff of earth in some way. I don’t know how, but
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this is the—the theological thinking. Eternity is not sitting on a cloud and singing, eternity is fighting for the truth, doing something good, developing, making something new. You are God’s partner forever and ever, amen.
DT: But you have to have some connection with a material world, and a material world that is healthy. Is that right?
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FK: That’s true.
DT: Is that what you’re saying?
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FK: It—it—so it is my responsibility to make sure that this is healthy. It’s my job, right now, to make sure that what I am using I am not abusing. And that I am protecting this for the next generation, for eternity.
DT: When you die, it’s not an utter escape, and it’s not a complete exit from this material world.
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FK: Absolutely not.
DT: There’s some responsibility, there’s some connection that continues?
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FK: Sure. I’m not becoming a spirit when I’m dying. My body will exist in a different way. I don’t know how, but when you go to the Scripture, Jesus was not a ghost. Give me something to eat, hey brother, give me some fish—fish over here. And He was eating in front of them. This was also a—a problem. Some people believed that Jesus was like a Santa Claus, you know, coming down dressed as a Santa Claus, a new human being, and now He left and He left us with—with the dress of Santa Claus and He is not human
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anymore. Forever and ever, Jesus, the Son of God, is also a man. Human being, He is two, He has those two natures, for eternity. He decided to become one, like us, forever. He is not a lion or an elephant. He’s a human being forever and ever. And by this, He is lifting us up to make us special creatures in the universe to take care of the other stuff. We are the priests in the universe, because he is the only priest, the mediator between God and man. And he’s using us now, with his help, to—to continue the job. We are God’s partners in this area.
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DT: We’re looking into the future, and as a priest, how do you get this young generation as part of your flock, as part of your parish, to embrace some of these concerns about the environment and about the health of the planet for their community?
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FK: Right now, for example, I have a Catholic school on my parish over here and I am with the teachers, they know my views, they—they—they can read the little thing I put together because I am writing a little article from time to time and now they are trying to apply this to the level, you know, of the kids. And they are going outside and they hear what is happening outside the school. They read the papers or they listen to the radio, watch TV, so they are pretty aware. And if they have this report still over here from the
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church, from my sermons, when I am with them, when I am talking about God and communion and I am telling them that this is, you know, something precious and it comes from the earth and what do you do with the water or the earth. How do you protect it to make it holy, you know? Their eyes are open and hopefully, when they will be older, they will take care of this, not only look for the money.
DT: Clearly you’re not here for the money. Can you talk about what it is that you look for for restoration and maybe a little bit of serenity in the face of many of these struggles which are difficult? Is there a place that you like to go?
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FK: It’s always good to take people you know, to look how—how beautiful this state of Texas is, this country. Go to Colorado. Beautiful. See the mountains, open your mouth. Go to Moore Ranch over here, past Kerrville, hunt. Leaves, trees, animals. You are—you are like in heaven, you know. It’s good also to take people from your parish on a little trip and sit down and play a little song on your guitar, and look around and tell them, this can be destroyed. They can make money on this stuff here. They can level it. It will be
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beautiful with some asphalt on it. Or it can be like this, what do you prefer? We prefer it like this. They don’t have to put an asphalt over here. But we need some asphalt, too. Yeah, but do it in a way that can really help the people enjoy that this is something, you know, beautiful and precious. You don’t have to plaster everything to make it beautiful. Artificial is good, but not always.
DT: Is this your vision of heaven? How would you describe heaven?
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FK: Heaven, I can describe as a—as a harmony, as a struggle, as a place where you will fully develop as a human being, as a place, a situation when you will be completely free, see? Because right now, there is always something what is blocking you, you are really not completely free. You want to do certain things, but you can’t. But, heaven, you will still struggle with this, but you will be able to do what you are really proud of, you know. Happiness is always a by-product of certain actions and you will be proud of your actions.
DT: You should be proud of your actions. I have no more questions. Do you have anything you would like to add?
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FK: There were a—a—great people helping us in Austin. I mentioned the name of Senator Truan, Representative Armbrister, we were having help in our lawyer, Bill Bunch. He was a great blessing to us over there in Fall City and later in Panna Maria. I believe I should mention the names of the—of the Steering Committee, the Panna Maria Concerned Citizens group. Andy Reeves is the president, he is the—like the leader of us. Mike Patrilla was the, you know, digger, he was over there. Donald Dugas was the expert on the pit, how to do the pit. Lailey Sczepanik, one of the nurses. Peggy Coalic. Dr. Owl. Dr. Wood, Albert Wood, from—from Corpus Christi. I believe I mentioned all of them so
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they were a—a—a blessing to me personally, and to the people over there in Panna Maria, and they deserve the credit. I was only with them and I said, what do we have to do now. You are Americans, you know, you know how to deal with the problems. You know what questions we have to ask. I will support you, I am with you. If people will be against you, I will jump on you. I am with you one hundred percent, and—and—and—and they—they, you know, they were doing the job over there. And still are doing the job.
DT: Thank you.
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FK: Thank you very much for asking me to participate in this little interview. (misc). In 1989, we are looking for help all over the country. And Panna Maria is the oldest Polish settlement in the United States so we thought maybe the people from Chicago or New York or Washington, who are Polish, will, you know, support us or write some letters to the local senators and so on. So we wrote a letter to certain groups over there, and one of them I have in front of me, was to the Polish American Congress. This organization is located in Chicago, Illinois and the president was at the time was Mr. Moscow. And this
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is what we are saying. Dear Mr. President. Panna Maria (inaudible) plant is leaking. The only question seems to be, how badly and who will bill the cost of contamination and cleanup. Department of Agriculture, Austin, Texas. That’s what, it was a quotation. Panna Maria is the oldest Polish settlement in the United States. It was established December 1854 by one hundred families from Upper Silesia in Poland. Today, concern is being raised in Panna Maria about the impact of mining and milling uranium on land and
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water resources around Panna Maria. For many years, Chevron has been mining and milling uranium in Panna Maria, now is applying to a state for renewal of its five-year license to operate in Panna Maria. In May, 1988, the Panna Maria Concerned Citizens group was found, formed, and initiated inquiry about the safety of a milling operation. Volumes of highly technical information was be—arrived and ex—ex—ex—exports by, excuse me, by experts, therefore the assistance of the health experts will—with radiation background, hydrology and regularly low—low—lower will be necessary. Can I change it? Can you go back to it?
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DT: OK, we can cut it.
FK: In May 1988, the Panna Maria Concerned Citizens group was formed and initiated an inquiry about the safety of a milling operation. The Concerned Citizens group is asking for support in their effort to have r—r—restrictions placed on the renewal of Chevron’s license, particularly the guarantee that the company will take the necessary actions to correct the damage caused by the leakage and seepage from the (inaudible) ponds. We need your support and our—in our struggle against a multi-million dollar corporation. We look to the Polish American Congress, a powerful and influential
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organization, and we pray that you will help us protect Panna Maria, a place that is important to every Polish American. It is necessary, we would be honored to address the Congress at any time to further explain our needs and our findings. We know your time is spent in many important issues, however we believe that we ought to share our concern with you. We shall appreciate any help. Panna Maria Concerned Citizens.
DT: What sort of reaction or help did you get?
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FK: They were—they were asking question because I was meeting with them from time to time. There were a couple of articles written in Polish over there about this. They were only asking, what do I doing, how is everything going. That—that was the reaction, they didn’t support us with any money. There were a couple of scientists that were Polish backgrounds, they were asking, you know, can we help? We said, we have some people over here who are doing what they can. But they were also open to the possibility of helping us in case we need somebody who has some expertise on certain issues.
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DT: One last thought. Speaking of solidarity and the Solidarity Movement in Poland, was any of the struggle there concerning environmental issues, or public health problems?
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FK: This was the beauty of the movement. They didn’t look only for the money to raise the salaries for the workers. They were looking broader. And environment was very important. Because they wanted to live in this area where they were with their families, and they didn’t know if they can do this. How the government will take care of the pollution, so this was a very big part of the Solidarity Movement.
DT: And it had an influence on you? It was something you were aware of?
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FK: Definitely. I was a priest, ordained in 1976, for ten years, in Silesia. I was in a small parish and here I have, you know, in four months, four burials of infants. So I have to ask myself, what’s wrong. And there’s a chemical factory and there is a—a mining going on and some other things, so there has to be some connection between the death of the kids and—and the—and the industry and the environment.
DT: It was obvious to you.
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FK: Sure. And there were people who knew about this, but they weren’t able to speak openly. And they were putting some records, you know. The Chernobyl ex—explosion was in 1985. 1986. So, in 90’s, everything was still quiet. Later on, they were giving us the numbers. What kind of radiation we were exposed to. People in—in the Ukraine still don’t know today what’s happened, and some of them want to go—go back to the area
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where the radiation is pretty, pretty heavy. People are special creatures. But, everything will be OK. I’m not saying this only because I have to, I mean, I know this, I believe this, that everything will be OK.
DT: And where do you find the faith, the confidence?
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FK: Because as a Christian, I know that God is taking care of us. He loves us. So, He has his own problem, so to speak, God. He loves us so much that He cannot stop to love us and this is driving Him nuts, but He loves us. Because we are doing all kinds of crazy things and He is never stopping to love us.
DT: You don’t think that He’s a vengeful God?
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FK: No, no. See, the idea of a vengeful God, not Christian. In—in the Po—Polish situation with Solidarity, there was a time I was sitting with all those Solidarity leaders, except Walesa. He was not coming to the meeting at the time, to my parish. And there was a week before the martial law, and those guys were ready to take over the government, you know, now we will lead the country, the Solidarity people. And they were talking about killing the Communists, Solidarity people. We will hang them. Them
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means Communist. And I am listening to this and, where is this coming from? Why do we have to hang them? Oh, God, as you know. Punishing people. Not my God. My God is hanging on the cross. That’s my God. He didn’t touch anybody. So? And they are saying, Hmm. Maybe we have to think about this. See, we need theologians, they said. We have to have this brought to our attention, too, how does Christianity see this whole stuff. So, we have a long way to go because we believe that our God is with some guns to
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kill the bad people. No, He’s died for them, He loves them. And to the bad guy who was hanging on the right side, He said, today you will be with me in paradise, not tomorrow, today. So the bad guys are in good hands. Good to try them in the hands of God, not me or somebody else. See? Good. Thank you.
[End of Reel 2197]
[End of Interview with Father Frank Kurzaj]