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Susana Almanza

INTERVIEWEES: Susana Almanza (SA)
DATE: October 16, 2003
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2260

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlated with time codes on 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. It’s October 16th, 2003 and were in Austin and were at the headquarters of PODER, People Organized in Defense of Earth’s Resources and we have the good fortune to be interviewing the director of PODER, Susana Almanza, and who’s been an activist in East Austin on a number of community and neighborhood environmental justice issues for several decades before PODER. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us and telling a little bit about her work and life.
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SA: Thank you.
DT: Maybe you could tell us how you got started in environmental justice.
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SA: Well, I got started in in the I guess it wasn’t called environmental justice movement when I was a child but what made me very conscious is that II kind of grew up on the edge of east 10th Street in East Austin. Everyone behind me was Mexican American. Everyone in front across the street going further east was African American. So though that life experience of where I grew up and the fact that my parents only spoke Spanish and it wasn’t until we went into school that we began to teach them English. I have seven brothers and two sisters, so I come from a real large family. We
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have a lot of we had a lot of activities. We had our own baseball team and we had no problem playing games or hide and seek because we were a team, but one of the things that my father always taught me when I was real little was he said Susana always respect everyone. He says I don’t care. And he would throw out all these colors; black, brown, blue, green, yellow and I so I’d go dad, you know, people aren’t those kind of color. He says just respect everyone, but if they don’t respect you you don’t owe them a thing. And when I was little I didn’t understand I I understand the respect part but I never really understood what what I don’t owe them a thing. It wasn’t until I grew up and saw the
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injustice that I that I realized what he meant was that I was going to have to speak out against the injustices that were happening. I felt them firsthand because my parents were treated as second class citizens because they didn’t speak English. We were also treated badly because we were in poverty. We lived in poverty. I didn’t realize that when I was young. It wasn’t until I got to elementary school that one of my teachers said well you live in poverty and I said well what is poverty, you know, what is that? She said well you’re a very poor your family is very poor. But I had always been told by my family that we were very rich because there’s a phrase that’s used in the Spanish language that says “La riqueza es la familia.” – the richness is a family. And so I knew that we were rich because there were so many of us and that’s how my family always said that we were rich, so it was a different concept than what the teacher was telling me. She was then
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looking at because we didn’t have any money. Of course, to us that wasn’t the value system that we grew up because, you know, we were very happy just eating rice and beans and tortillas and, you know, special occasions, you know, having chicken and meat and stuff like that. So but it is in those experiences and living in that sort of demarcation and looking at how African Americans were also treated because I grew up in that whole era at that Civil Rights too and about how we were allowed to go into certain places. And I remember having totally African American friends and I was just a little girl and the Ritz Theater, which is down used to be down on 86th Street, one particular time is they said lets go to the movies. So we all went to the movies and when
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we got up there to pay the guy says, well she can’t go up there. It’s only for Negroes. Andand so they said what? And they said no, she has to go downstairs, so we said oh okay, well then were not going in. So we went around and we waited for a while and they said well what can what are we going to do then? You they won’t let you go in and so one of them says I know well tie your hair in a scarf. Well well hide every bit of your hair. We know how to just do it so none of your hair will be showing and I was pretty brown. At that time I was even browner because we’d be out in the sun. And they
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said whatever you do don’t open your mouth, you know, so we all got in together as a group and we got up. We got upstairs to the Ritz Theaters upstairs where the the African Americans had to sit and I just couldn’t believe it. I just could not believe it because Id been downstairs and up there the popcorn was stale. The machine was not on. The pickles were stale. It was dirty like they didn’t clean it. They didn’t have the theater seats and I looked at that and it wasII said you know what its not like this downstairs. They said what? I said no. there’s fresh popcorn. The pickles are crispy.
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The chairs are seated they’re very nice. Its very clean and I when I saw that, you know, all of these things that I’ve experienced, you know, the the whole issue of being looked at as a second class citizen being looked at because you spoke Spanish or because you didn’t come from money or the color of your skin. It’s to me all those life experiences that has made me feel that I had to speak out against injustice and get involved in changing the way a lot of these systems and policies and views that people have have tried to make those changes. But it’s been my life experience that has led me on this path that I’m on.
DT: What activities were you involved in as you grew up to try and speak for your community?
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SA: Well, I’ve been involved in the community like I said all my childhood even when I was in high school we worked and organized on campus against thefor the Cesar Chavez and the farm workers of trying to get the school not to use non-union lettuce. We also organized in the school to bring equity because at that time if you didn’t have a B average or above there was a grade point system you could not be a cheerleader. You could not play in football. Then you could you in order to be a majorette you had to be in the band. They had all these criterias and then in order to be on student council it
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was all popularity votes and at that time, you know, we worked to change a lot of those policies to do the walkout. All of those things began in my high school area and because where I went to high school at Steven of Austin it was only a couple of blocks down from the University of Texas, so there was a lot of education and exchange that was being done by activism students on campus and then the students at the high high school level. But when I graduated from high school that was when the Brown Berets here in Texas and in Austin were being organized and I joined that Brown Beret movement because I believed in what they were working for. They were working at that time we
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were suffering from police brutality. There was a lot of disrespect by the police in our community. You would you would read about a youth being killed or being murdered, being beat up. It was it was a constant in our community, also, too the education. We fought for equity in education systems and I learned very early on there too. When I went to a predominantly Latino school and then went to Austin High, which was a predominantly Anglo school, that my A was really equal to a B-. We found out that there was a very inequity in the education system. Even though I was in the honor society and my friends when we got to Austin High the level of education we had received was sub standard from the students that were coming from the west side. So we encountered a lot of difference in the education system when we got there. And besides that we all a long we had seen like a 50 percent of drop out rate or push our rate in our communities so we
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knew that there was an inequity in the education system and that a lot of racism was happening even within the system of education. So that that part was what was the Brown Berets manifesto was looking at education, looking at the police, also looking at the housing conditions, that we needed to really insure that there was low income and affordable housing and home ownership was among other things that we were striving for, and also for our culture. The whole thing was this whole in our whole movement where they were trying to erase us as a people, to erase that we had an identity, that we came from astronomers, mathematicians, educators, architects. We come from a group of people that have contributed so much, you know, to the universe yet none of that was being taught. And and the flip thing was happening is that they didn’t want us to speak
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Spanish. They didn’t want us to recognize our cultural heritage. I remember as a as a child going to school and basically everyone would hide to eat their tacos because it was frowned upon to eat tacos, to eat burritos and stuff. And now we see the flip of that. We see everybody eating it and enjoying it, but not at that time. It was really looked down as like you’re at the bottom of the tier. If you didn’t bring to school, you know, white bread and baloney or whatever in a sandwich it was like really frowned upon if you brought, you know, a taco to school and stuff. So all of those things that, you know, that a lot of people now take for granted and have accepted was part of the struggle that we struggled for was to making sure that our community got a good education and and received the right to receive higher education to the maximum as possible and that wed stop police
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brutality, and that we brought about affordable housing and ownership, that we also brought about cultural awareness. That was what the Brown Beret movement was about at that particular time. It was unfortunate that at that particular time the Black Panther movement was at its height and there was a lot of interference with the FBI, the CIA, all of these other government bodies that were really crashing down on a lot of the organizations. And a lot of places where we went to protest we were maced, we were beaten, we were arrested, we were constantly being challenged within the legal system of a lot of things. But during that movement we had the time to really get out and struggle for the rights of our community and that was the continuation of my path of staying on that path of justice.
DT: Can you talk about how you got into environmental justice?
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SA: Well, one of the things that happened was that we had a lot of national groups that were going to put together a meeting with SEMATEC and that is in the Montopolis community and that is a national consortium of different high tech facilities such as IBM, Motorola, Advanced Micro Devices and SEMATEC was sort of like the brain child. Its where the top engineers from all these differents were there trying to develop the faster, you know, chip. But at that time they were making those smart chips for the smart bombs and so a lot of the national organizations had finally said were setting up a meeting to come and meet with SEMATEC. And they had were looking for someone
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to go out and survey the community, someone to put that dialogue together and a friend of mine, Antonio Diaz, who became the co chair of PODER back in the early 90s he’s I wasn’t working at the time and so he said look there’s a possibility of doing this. I said sure, so I went back in the community. I helped organized that meeting. We actually got into SEMATEC, started the dialogue. Afterwards we we got together all the different regional, national state groups that were here and talked and evaluated and then all of a sudden we saw everybody going back to their prospective, you know, states and organizations and we went like wow, wait a minute. Now that we know all of this stuff is here and its in our community we have got to do something about it and it was then that we formed PODER, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources.
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So that isthat is why we initiated PODER, was to look at the polluting facilities that were in our communities and how we were going to change them. The other big issue was that the high techthey were beginning to develop a high tech corridor in the Montopolis community. You had SEMATEC, you had Advanced Micro Devices, and there were other high tech electronics who wanted to come in. So then we began working right away to say we don’t want this to become a high tech corridor and the other thing is that they were receiving huge amounts of tax abatements and we didn’t feel that that was appropriate that we were starting to give high tech facilities, tax abatements
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when we had small businesses here. We really employed the community who were not getting any types of tax break and that began the organization of looking at the high tech and the legacy because we knew from our working with people like in California with the Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition that the high tech had left a foot print there of contamination. And we sure didn’t want that footprint to continue, you know, into our communities and the other problem was that no one from our communities were working at those facilities. Here they were in our communities yet we were being burdened by all the emissions, the pollution that were coming from them, but we weren’t working there, yet when they wanted to come and set up shop the first thing they did was they would
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come to the community and say we are going to create jobs, jobs, jobs. It’s going to create all these jobs for your community, but when we looked at it we saw that at that time in the early 90s that Austin was like at a three percent unemployment rate. Montopolis was experiencing a 15 percent unemployment rate, so we were like highly unemployed and we also realized that in the high tech facilities they were very skilled. A lot of them required engineers and you basically had to have an associate degree to get into those kind of positions. And also too, the only time you could work at the high tech was working at the most hazardous portion of the high tech and that was the assembly line where you were exposed to all these different chemicals and so forth. That would be
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the only place that our community could get a job within the high tech system. So that’s kind of where we because we started off was with the whole issue of the high tech and then taking that as to the whole issue of the tax abatements in trying to change that policy.
DT: How did you first learn about the whole issue of the East Austin tank farm, which I guess is one of your first successful campaigns?
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SA: Well, it all started with, you know, Silvia looking looking through the notices and giving me a call and said Susana there’s a notice that Mobile wants to expand its facility and in this it says that its going to emit more xylene and toluene into the community and these are very hazardous chemicals, and so we really need to do something about it. And right after that we went down to the state headquarters. Back then it was the Texas Air Control Board. Its now the Texas Commission Environmental Quality. But we went down there and began to research those documents and that air permit. We found in their letter from the county health department that says they were very concerned that they
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were going to put out more benzene, which is a known carcinogen because there was communities surrounding the area. So immediately what we did was that we said okay, were going to have to fight; call for public hearing regarding that air permit. And then we went to the at that time EAST was the East Austin Strategy Team, was a coalition of African American Neighborhood Associations. So we went to talk to them about what was happening with these facilities and all the stuff that we had found and would they join also in calling for a public hearing and they said that they would. So then they also called for a public hearing. Meanwhile, we decided well we need to find out what is the health of this community because all these decades they’ve been exposed. Silvia had
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looked up a lot of the health and looked at what were some of the health impacts if you were exposed to these chemicals, you know, such as cancer and miscarriages, nose bleeds, respiratory conditions. And we had a public meeting and through through our surprise that meeting was pretty full. We didn’t expect that many people to come out, but that’s when we found out there was a lot of sick people in the community. And from there we began to organize like the phone trees. We looked at were their neighborhood associations in the area? If there were not we needed to help them form a neighborhood association. We began to meet, you know, almost weekly. We went out and did the health survey. We petitioned the the agency for toxic disease and substance registry
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about it. We petitioned the state health department. We petitioned the county. We petitioned the city. And I think one one thing that got us the most exposure was in February of 2000I mean of 1992 we did a toxic tour and then in that toxic tour we got councilman Gus Garcia who later became the mayor to get us two buses from Capitol Metro and we invited the state representatives, the county commissioners, the city council members, the school principals, school board members, community leaders, to come on that tour. And we took them on the tour across and right on Alf next to the tank farm and we had already worked out where a couple of the residents would come out and talk
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about their experiences. And we had Lupe Padilla was the first home we stopped at and they listened to her. She was saying that that she was always sick. She was always taking aspirins, but that when she went to go visit her sister out at Taylor she would be just fine. But then when shed come back she would start experiencing those symptoms. She says I don’t know if it’s the tank farms or not. I just know that when I leave the area for a few days I’m fine and I come back and I’m sick. And then Maryann Flores talked about her children and we took them back there where they would see the run off that would come off the tank farm and you could see the sheen in the water and her kids had played in there and they had all broken out with sores and stuff. And so immediately
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state representative Glen Maxey says I want air testing done out here and [State] Senator [Gonzalo] Barrientos says I want where water testing done out here and everybody could smell the gasoline once they got there. It was like if you imagine when you go to fill up your car with gasoline and you feel smell those odors. Well the people in that area were smelling those odors on a regular basis, you know, 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the
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year. And a lot of the children never even left that area, never went anywhere but just were constantly in that area. So after everyone experienced that and smelled it and saw it for themselves then they knew something had to be done. They knew there had to be changes done in that particular community. We had began to pressure the state to do some deep well water monitoring testing out there and they had refused and thank goodness PhilipMr. Philip Gutierrez who who is now deceased, he had a little money and he had a water well because there are natural water springs out there. He wouldn’t
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use that water for drinking but he’d use it to water his gardening out there and he noticed that his gardening and his grass was dying. So he hired a firm to come out and test his water well. And in that test it showed that there were petroleum byproducts in that test and that is what opened the door for us because even though the oil companies which we found very insulting they came out and said, well he probably is dumping motor oil down his water well. And we thought like that is very disgusting. Why would anyone want to harm their water well that they used to nourish their garden and their yard? But it was with that testing that we then told the state okay, the contamination is not with just
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on the site, it has gone off the site. And that is what opened the door to forcing us to have the state then become put out monitoring wells throughout the community and, of course, from there those monitoring wells started coming up dirty. It it was it was factual and true that we were told by the oil company here’s another one and its actually quoted in this document. When we had a meeting at Johnston High School that we had one of the oil representatives tell us yes, there is some contamination but its contained within the allied fence. The allied fence is holding it and we went like, yeah right, you know, we like we just looked and we just thought do they think we’re so stupid and
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we’re so idiots that an allied fence is going to withhold contamination, you know. But these are the kind of insults that we were given every time when we said, you know, there was contamination or Mr. Gutierrez found that his his water well was contaminated and and the usual thing when they were saying people were sick, of course, they say well its probably because you all eat too many chilies and tortillas and smoke and you all drink you all consume a lot of alcohol and that’s probably why you all are ill. So these are just some of the things even today that we encountered as we were taking on this struggle to close down the the tank farm. But one real big significant difference in this
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was that it was the height of the environmental justice movement and in that height of the environmental justice movement the slogan was we speak for ourselves. So what we were trying to do is tell the community you’ve got to speak up against what is happening here. And we had a lot of the mainstream environmental groups says okay we want to help, were here to do this and we said, hold them up. We want your help, but we don’t want you to be the leaders because what happens is when our community see you all come in they’re going to say well they have all the knowledge and they can go and they can speak for us and then activism kind of takes a back seat. I said that’s not what we
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want. We want everybody to speak up, you know, about what’s happening here. We there’s a role for everybody but what we want you to do is to help up us to make the calls, to send out the campaign letters, you know, to help us in this particular struggle, but not to be the leaders, not to be the spokespersons. It has to come from the community and that and that began another relationship, you know, with a lot of the mainstream organizations coming to to work together but also respecting the whole movement that do that we were doing was we speak for ourselves. And having these people like Mrs. Fedadina Rivera from Salvador. She didn’t speak a word a word of English. To this day
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she doesn’t, but she became the Spanish spokesperson for the community, so wherever she went we’d take her to the Texas Air Control Board and she spoke about what was happening all in Spanish. It was up to them to find the translators to find out exactly what we she was saying, went to the city council, Gus Garcia had to translate what she was saying. But we say no, you’ve got to say regardless if you speak English or not you’ve got to say what is happening and she was very good about about doing that particular stuff. And that was what we were what we were doing to several things was teaching the people you have to speak up and you have that right to speak up and you
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should take on that role. It’s your community, it’s your family that’s being exposed here. There’re people that are dying and and that’s exactly what happened. Once people got the information that it was a tank farm causing that illness or could be causing that illness the first thing they did was they got extremely mad. The second thing they did is that they got organized and began to work to close the the tank farm. So a lot of things happening happened in that whole struggle with the tank farm. And I remember at one of the meetings a guy standing up and saying well, do you all have money? And at the time we said no, we don’t have any money but were going to ask everybody to give, you
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know, a dime, a quarter, anything and we all we need is to make copies of the fliers and so forth. At that time PODER didn’t have an office. We didn’t we weren’t even a 501(C)(3) [tax-exempt organization] and he says because you’re talking about taking on six oil giants with millions and billions of dollars and you’re not going to be able to do a thing. And we said well, you know, that’s that’s your opinion and we respect your opinion but all were going to ask is that you step aside and let the people who want to take on this struggle, who want to make a change in their community, who are tired of being sick, who are tired of seeing loved ones die go forward because and we were honest. We said this is a campaign that’s not going to end tomorrow or a year. It’s going to be years. We looked at it as
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years. Its going to take us years. But we have to do something to end what has happened to our community here and if we don’t do it then it’s just going to continue and people said no, were all in it, you know. The few people who decided at the beginning that it was a battle that couldn’t be won we just asked them to step aside and they did and we moved forward with those people who believed that they needed to do something to change the living conditions that they were under.
DT: Well what do you think it was that turned it from being a campaign that you felt would take years to being an effort that almost got concluded within a year and a half or so?
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SA: Yeah, well I think that there was so much evidence. The real turning point there was a lot of evidence that happened there. The fact is that there was contamination. There was ground water and soil contamination. All this stuff was being out being exposed. The media was very good in covering the issue for us, to putting out the news, to investigating it even further themselves, getting involved in it. But what really, really helped us was when the county commissioners would county attorney Ken Oden and county commissioner Marcus DeLeon and others decided to appropriate two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to do a civil and criminal investigation. And that is what opened
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the next door because with that money Ken Oden hired a team of biologists and engineers. He put a group together. The community decided that Ron Davis from EAST and myself would be the two community people who would go into the tank farm along with the county attorney and the scientists and biologists and do their testing out there and that is exactly what happened. We we went out there with the county and that team and it there was only one incident that happened that also the media covered very highly in thein the print media and also on television and that’s when we got to the Golf Coastal States. And there was this real big guy there. He was like six foot five or something but he was big and he had on this white cap and he told the county attorney
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you, you, everybody can come in except those two people because were the only two people of color was Ron Davis and myself. And I remember the county attorney coming to us and he says here’s the problem, the guy is saying that we all can go in except you and Ron cannot go in. He’s not going to allow you all to go on site. And I immediately I said well you know what it the work has got to be done. You all go ahead. You do what you have to do and well just wait out here and Ron said yeah, you know, the important thing is you’ve got to go in there and do your testing and the county attorney looked at us and he says, you know what, were a team. We visit these sites together as a team. He said we either go in as a team or we don’t go in. He said now this
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is what I want you all to do, I’m going to put you and Ron you and Ron go up, try to get in because I’ve got to get him to stop you all and them I’m going to go get an order forcing them to let us all in as a group. He said but first I’ve got to make sure that he stops us before I can do this. I told Ron you go first Ron I’m behind you. I’m behind you Ron, don’t you worry, I’m right there because that was a big guy and Ron is, you know, bigger than I am but not as big as that guy. So of course we went up to it and we said were coming in and the guy says no you’re not and he blocked us. So the county attorney said lets go and he came back with the papers and everything the next day and we all were allowed to go in and then began the negotiation because what really
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happened, which we will never, ever really know everything out there because these documents ended up getting sealed. But what happened was there was so much contamination and who knows what else out there the county attorney then began to use that leverage in saying you know what, I’ve got this against you all, I can file some pretty good charges of against you all. you’re going to have to negotiate with the community and relocate and close you down. Of course the county didn’t want to lose the tax base so the county was willing to do some land swap and they said were willing to exchange some land so you’ll still have a place to do it but not where there’s residential and not in an environmental sensitive area, so then began the negotiation. They wanted originally
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ten years to get out. We then it came down to five and we finally agreed three years, to give them three years because they would then have to get their permitting, you know, they had to set up the other facility. So we said well we three years, okay, well we’ll go with three and that’s what the county attorney started negotiating the agreement with each facility. And of course the only person who would not sign was Exxon. And they had the worse record, you know, all over the universe but they were fighting the hardest because they didn’t want to sign the agreement to relocate. So what had happened was
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we had been doing letters of protest. The Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, which was about six different states and we were affiliate members, PODER, of the Southwest Network, we began a letter writing campaign. So Exxon Corporation, this main headquarters in Houston was being bombarded by letters from all over the place to close down, to sign the agreement. And on February the 17th we were scheduled to go to Exxon to have a major protest that wed worked on doing there at Exxon and then we got the call on February the 17th, well maybe it was the 18th we were going to be at Houston so we got the call on the 17th saying guess what? Exxon has agreed to sign the agreement and they’re going to close down. Well, we were so happy
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but at the same time it it was causes a lot of work because we had to fax people, we had to call people, we had to tell them that the protests were out, instead we were going to have a victory rally at the tank farm site here in Austin and trying to notify all the different groups up in Dallas and Houston and Austin who were planning to go to that corporate headquarters. And so what we ended up doing was having a rally and declaring victory on February the 18th along with the a lot of the community leaders and state representatives and county commissioners that we had finally succeeded in Exxon which was a long haul down to sign the agreement to relocate. And so it was a great victory because it inspired the community so much that they had taken on, you know,
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transnational billion dollar corporations and were successful in getting them out of their community. And most of all because they know they were going to get to be able to breath better and at least they would save the the children and the future generations from all that exposure of emissions that were coming out from the tank farm. So it was indeed a good victory but it also sparked you can’t even imagine but the whole city, you would go to the to the washaterias, you would go, you know, just anywhere on the buses across town and it was bussed all over the city. Everybody was talking about the tank farms on the Spanish radio, on the African American station, on all the the regular stations in town. It was just a big, big discussion and dialogue and that was so important
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because it was a political issue. It was a lit was an issue of injustice and people were becoming very, very conscious about what was happening in their community but also people from other communities were very conscious about what was happening to our communities. And it created a lot of bridging and working together of people who strive for humanity and who work against injustice. And that’s what made it so powerful I think is that during the whole movement of environmental justice a lot of people had awakened that the environment wasn’t just about naturekind but it was about humankind and that you couldn’t separate nature and human. It was intertwined interwoven and that
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we had to be looking at the whole big picture about what was happening in the environment of where we live, work and play and that’s why it was such a big issue because the ramifications were just so huge. I remember right after all that happened the African American community then said well you know what, we’ve been living with the garbage trucks city garbage truck dumping into the watershed, the smells that come from there, washing their trucks, they got organized and says well you know what, if you can shut down the tank farm we can certainly shut down the garbage trucks that are
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happening here and sure enough they were. They were successful so it kind of began this whole rolling circular activity and movement about the changes that needed to be done and it didn’t matter if you didn’t have money. You know it didn’t matter what color you were, you know, these changes needed to to be done. And II might add too that we had just received during that whole tank farm issue, we received a two thousand dollar grant from Lois Gibbs and at that time she was with the Citizens Clearance House on Hazardous Waste, but it was that two thousand dollars that we used to the maximum, you
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know, during that year campaign to close it down that assisted us. But we were real cautious about, you know, the pamphlets, the literature, the little meetings stuff that we needed to get with that two thousand dollars. So really we took on billions of dollars transnational corporation with two thousand dollars and a bunch of people power. That’s what made it very successful, was the whole people power and people getting involved and making policy changes because from there it just then you’d have to look at the land use. What had allowed the the tank farm to be able to site in our community was the whole issue of zoning and land use. So that was the next thing that it took us to.
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The other thing was well what about the clean up? Once it was closed how was the clean up going to happen and how we’re we going to monitor that particular clean up? Then the next phase is okay, we want to redevelop that 52 acres, what is it that we wanted to have there in our community? So it just kind of snow balled from one issue to the next issue that even today now were looking at the redevelopment of that 52 acres.
DT: What did you learn in fighting the East Austin Tank Farm and what did you gain from having won that battle?
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SA: Well, you know during that whole tank farm struggle and afterwards was the community, The Guards Neighborhood Association, which is just catty corner from the tank farm who had also got involved in the tank farm issue saying well we know we’ve been fighting this BFI Recycling Plant but we haven’t been able to get so far, you know, along the issue and we said well lets work on it together. We had to do a lot of research and, you know, talk to the community about what was happening there and then we said well then there’s a process that we have to go through, you know. We knew that it was a city who was contracting BFI to continue to have his doors open when you would have to
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talk to BFI and that we had to get the community involved in that particular issues. And we always believe in education advocacy in action. So we also organize press conferences and also protests around the whole BFI, but we took the community through a whole educational course that the main people we had to go to was the City of Austin because the City of Austin were the ones who had given that that contract for recycling. And then we had to educate the community because the community, of course, when you read East Austins fight recycling plant you’d think like why are they fighting recycling, you know, we’ve we fought for a long time? The mainstream environmental groups
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have fought for a long time to bring about recycling, you know, but we always say you you have to follow that chain. Recycling is good but where is the recycling going to was where they failed to to say okay, where are you going to move this recycling to? And I think if they would have said well, were going to move it to the Guards Neighborhood Association II think that the environmental groups would have said no way, you can’t do that. But they were not aware that three hundred and fifty thousand household recyclables were coming to the community, nor were they aware that those trucks had to be coming in and out of the community about every fifteen or twenty minutes to dump all of this stuff. And really the recycling plant had really become a mini landfill. It had beer bottles, milk cartons and people know that when these things sit around they have an
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odor. Newspapers when they get wet, I don’t know if people have an idea of how they smell, but when you have all this open garbage what happens is it attracts rodents and insects and all kinds of things. And one of the things that the community had had had where they had these giant rodents, and at one time it was so bad that the health department had to step in and give everybody rat poison, and we said that’s not the answer, you know, giving people rat poison. So what we did was we worked with the community to get the issue out. We had (inaudible) who’s done a lot of videos for us put together a video of what was happening so that when we go talk to city council it wasn’t just talking heads, it was visuals because that’s what people could see could see the
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conditions that people were living in. And so when we showed that video we signed up and and we took it because it took us like 18 minutes. We signed up everyone so that we could show the video and once the community communities elsewhere saw what was happening itthey couldn’t believe it. Then they said well, that recycling plant needs to close. How can you be doing that to that community and having those those trucks and the trash coming in and they showed the rat. They even had it with a ruler to show how long and big the rat was so it sit was real. It wasn’t, you know, these people weren’t just talking or angry just to talk, it was because something terrible was happening to them. They couldn’t sleep with all the noise, so it there were immediate changes that
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happened. One was they would just work to wee hours at night, early in the morning. We said there has to be a decent cut off so that people and children can sleep, you know, there has to be an entrance where they come in so they’re not cutting all through the community. There were like short term immediate things that could happen before we could then close down the BFI. But it was constant again organizing, educating other communities, other people, educating the city about the conditions and then putting together a, what they call stakeholders meetings, but we I like to call them shareholders meetings because we have a share in what’s really happening in our
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community and we should. And having those meetings and beginning the dialogue with BFI and the city and the community of how were going to reach the closure of BFI and the relocation. It took us, I believe, about seven years for that whole process to close down BFI and to reach the agreement to get them out of the community. The city had to end up using emanate domain than going into court to reach a settlement and then making sure that, you know, it was cleaned up. And then we had to again the very important thing was do the zoning change to insure that nothing else could come up and set up shop in in where the BFI facility was at. So each time as we began to address an issue
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which the environ the its the height of the environmental justice movement throughout the nation. Groups all over the United States are saying, you know, there’s a landfill in our community, there’s a chem plant that is emitting, there’s refineries that are killing us, you know, the ecosystem is hurting big time. All these things that we were attacking and trying to relocate and close but the bottom line was zoning. That was what was allowing all these industries to expand in our community and to come up and set up shop in our community. So again we would then went to the city council to the planning commission, took the community through all these things because there’s such a bureaucracy. We then had to educate people of how zoning works, what was the process,
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get them to the planning commission, then get them to the city council to down zone it and we ended up down zoning it which is was in an industrial zoning to a neighborhood office zoning so that nothing nothing more than neighborhood offices could set up shop in that particular area and that’s the current zoning that’s there. Now with the Holly Power Plant, it’s been a little bit more difficult because the culprit that’s allowing this to stay here in our community is a city itself. It’s the City of Austin. So it’s not like it’s a corporation, its headquarters is in another state or another country or something like that.
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Its actually the City of Austin that owns the Holly Power Plant. And what is making it worse is that revenues are gen generated from the Holly Power Plant. But then again, you know, that’s been what we see as a very racist decision because at the time when Seaholm, which is in West Austin where nobody lives, down where the old city hall was was being proposed to shut down and take offline. We said no, leave them open and take us offline. Nobody lives over there at the Seaholm and you can, you know, sell your excess revenue if you want to over there. We have people who are living all around this thing. We’re taking on the burden of the whole city but were not receiving the benefit.
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We still have high electric bills up here. Water is the houses from all the constant (?) and changing has shifted a lot of the foundations in this area. People have had to live with noise for such a long time and they’re being exposed to electric magnetic fields and to the particulate matters that come out that you can’t see from the naked eye that cause respiratory problems. So we said here is your opportunity to close it down, but that’s not what happened. Instead they decide to decommission Seaholm and a big group began to look at making it a museum, the arts culture and now it’s it’s become this whole
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redevelopment with The Lance Armstrong Bike Park and Trail, the possible light rail and so it’s all been, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to look at how they’re going to use the Seaholm as a cultural center. Meanwhile, these Austinites are being impacted negatively by the Holly Power Plant. Not only then since then they have bought Sand Hill online, which they if they really wanted to if the city of Austin wanted to they could close it down today and not hurt one bit because they could still have electricity rerouted from Sand Hill or from Decker Lake, from Fayette. There’s other places that they have. It’s not that they need the Holly Power Plant, but our life
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orits not worth, you know, were still people of color. So it’s easier to continue to expose us and kill us and make money off it than it is to just, you know, safeguard our health. And I think that they’re a lot of people even when we looked at closing the power plant a small group of people had gotten together and said oh no, but your electric bills are going to go up by eight dollars more if we close down the Holly Power Plant and, you know, so they began this whole talk again about money. But they don’t look at what the cost if you I think most of everyone knows someone, a family member or
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friend someone that’s gotten cancer and the cost of cancer is astronomical. If you just look and that’s just looking at the financial costs, were not looking at the human costs of what that does to families when someone has cancer, you know. And I’m not just not just the immediate family, but the extended family and their friends what happens when someone has cancer. So no one is really looking at well, what is the cost of human life here, you know, when you really don’t need it and you continue to expose the people, you know, to these human inhuman dignities, you know. So I think that there’s still a lot of education and awareness that needs to happen to really close the Holly Power Plant.
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And one of the ways that we’ve been looking at is the whole health issue because people understand health. They might not understand a lot of issues but health is something everybody understands. If you’re sick you know you’re sick, you know, so health is is a real issue to people. It’s something that they can’t see the particular matter, but they can see when somebody is sick and they can feel it if you’re sick, but you can’t see electric magnetic fields, you know, you don’t see the harm that it’s causing. You know the noise you can hear it but you don’t know exactly the harm that’s happening to peoples bodies and like I said we said the vulnerable population of the children and the
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elderly. So II think we still have a little ways to go on that and were going to need a lot of help and I think that one of the answers is ais a solar energy, you know, now that the city has really looked about going higher shooting a goal of 20 percent of looking at solar renewable energy that that’s a real answer and that they don’t need the power plant. It’s so outdated. It’s it’s so outdated that its doing a lot more harm and it costs us as residents, taxpayers, a lot more money to keep it open than it would just to close it down. And so I think that were at a point that were going to really need to work
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together with those different groups that are really pushing renewable energy, you know, looking at solar energy in order to really put the pressure on the city council and the utility commission to take the Holly Power Plant offline.
DT: What have you learned about putting pressure on companies or on elected bodies and organizing that you can maybe pass on to us?
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SA: Well, I think that, you know, what’s real important is to hold corporations and governments accountable. They have to be accountable to the people because when they have no accountability they will just, you know, really ruin the earth and really destroy, you know, those elements that we need to survive, you know, the air, the water, the sun, the soil, all those things. So we have to hold them accountable. One of the things that we’ve learned is that when there’s an issue and even though you think that that its just a city that has, you know, some kind of authority, what we do is look at the issue that says well, it might have the authority for this contract but who has the authority to look at
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the permit, which might take you to the state level. Okay, what what part of that corporation might be at the federal level? What part of that corporation is at the county, the health level, the local level, the Governors level? And I think that that’s what people have really got to look at. Not that even if it’s just a slight piece just a third of that corporation or an eighth of that corporation that some other entity has an involvement in or a say is that we have to address all of those agencies, all of those entities regardless if they have a big stake in that corporation or a small stake in that corporation. And I think that that’s one of the things that weve learned is to leave nothing unturned because, you
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know, with the tank farm we went all the way to the attorney general, to the county commissioners, the City of Austin, the the health department, the federal health department, the EPA. I mean you just have to make sure that you’ve covered that issue from the people who are living there to all the way up to the top to the federal level at addressing that issue and that’s what really makes, you know, that issue in changing that issue real powerful because you’ll find that there’s a lot of different policy and authority pieces that fall within that particular area. One of the things in the tank farm
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that we discovered was that the notices had not been done in Spanish and basically that was a Spanish-speaking community. So one of the things we did was with Barrientos and [State Representative Glen] Maxey was to look at them and and pushing legislation that whenever there were going to be stake notices about a public hearing that it needed to put be put also in the language that was predominantly of that particular community. So there’s a lot of different things that we also learned as we looked at that issue and that we tell other
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people that even though this issue might look like it’s just something that has to do with the city it really can encompass a whole body of agencies and institutions and entities and each one you have to address them in order to make those changes.
DT: What has this work meant to you personally and has it changed you in any way?
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SA: Well, I go back to my indigenous beliefs and one one other thing is that there was a time that we were all sisters and brothers, the night sky our ceiling, the earth our mother, the sun our father, our parents our leaders and justice your guide and that’s been my belief that justice is my guide. And for me at a very early age that was my calling. I knew that my destiny what would be in speaking out against injustices and staying on that path and that it would not be judged on the success of the amount of money that I made, but on be judged on the injustices that I was able to change, you know, into the community. And to me there’s no greater satisfaction when were able to make those
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changes and those injustices when children can breath a lot better and not have to smell gasoline every morning, you know, when people can see the clear sky, you know, when people can get out and have a picnic and enjoy themselves. To me that’s my self satisfaction because I too am a mother and a grandmother, so to me is is that if I make sure that there’s some place that’s going to be nice, safe and healthy for my children, my grandchildren and their children to me that’s what fulfills me and satisfies me as as a person because that’s my destiny. I’ve never fought my destiny. I I learned at a very young age that I had a destiny that I had to do and I’ve done it, you know, I’ve continued on that path of justice. And so to me the other part in creating that balance is
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my spirituality, which I still am very much connected to my indigenous root. I still practice and do dance with the Concheros you know, the Mayan and Aztecas I still have a lot of those ceremonial prayers. They keep me balanced because it is it’s very hard when you’re out fighting what some people say the system or the
End of Reel 2260
End of interview with Susana Almanza