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Profile

Neighborhood Watch

A Texas twosome takes on polluters, and wins

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Sylvia Herrera was seven years old when her teacher taped her mouth shut. It was her first week of school at Govalle Elementary in East Austin, Texas. She was being punished for speaking Spanish. More than four decades later, the memory still stings. But today, with a master’s degree in social work and a doctorate in health education from the University of Texas, Herrera’s voice is familiar and frequently heard in Austin’s environmental politics.

Her friend Susana Almanza can match Herrera’s stories of early life in their Austin neighborhood. In a family of ten children, Almanza became the translator at age five because she had picked up English best. Whether to the grocery store with her mother or to the ballot box with her father–a day laborer who believed so strongly in voting that he was willing to pay Texas’s poll tax–the young Almanza was brought along. Sometimes, she says, she didn’t translate what people said to her parents.

"Following my dad around, I learned about racism at a very early age–how you were treated if you were poor or spoke only Spanish," says Almanza, 52. "My life experience mentored me in speaking out against injustice." With thick black hair she pulls back with combs, Almanza speaks English with a Tex-Mex blend of southern drawl and a more-southern-still Spanish accent. A single mother of four and grandmother of two, Almanza’s open face and laid-back manner are disarming.

We are sitting in a tiny house on Garden Street that Almanza and Herrera, 50, bought with part of a $130,000 "Leadership for a Changing World" Ford Foundation award they won last year. The house serves as the office for PODER, which the women cofounded in 1991. Poder means "power" or "empowerment" in Spanish, but it’s also an acronym for People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources. The group helped boot polluting industries from East Austin and then changed the zoning laws that herded polluters there in the first place.

In the office a photo of the two women protesting at a massive fuel-storage facility in East Austin hangs on the wall. (There’s also a bumper sticker that reads: "They aren’t hot flashes. They are power surges.") Another photo shows a young woman marching in the street, fist raised. "That’s me at a protest in Waco, way back," says Almanza, who adds that she was a member of the Brown Berets, a Chicano iteration of the Black Panthers, in the 1970s. When asked how she has managed lifelong activism without burning out, she laughs and answers quickly–without really answering. "People think I seem calm," she says, "but they don’t want to read what’s in the bubble over my head!"

Herrera nods then glances upward, as though reading unspoken words above both of them. Her beaded blue earrings, shaped like corncobs, stand out against her jet-black hair. "Thank God our parents taught us about respect," says the single mother of two. "We realize that not everybody has faced the adversity we have. Sometimes it’s hard, but we’ve got to be willing to educate, not alienate–provide information about Austin’s zoning laws, for instance, in a way people can hear."

The topic of zoning is full of unintelligible shorthand; it’s about endless meetings under fluorescent lights, and bureaucratic niggling. It seems boring, I admit to Almanza and Herrera. "It seems boring," they politely reply. Then they pull out their large City of Austin map.

It’s late April and the weather outside has turned humid and warm. The wrought-iron screen door, which Herrera’s father designed and welded (along with the bars on the windows), lets in a slight breeze. Garden Street is typical of East Austin, with its small homes and well-tended lawns, kids whizzing around on bicycles or playing in the yard, and live oaks and pecans offering a verdant canopy of shade. What stands out, however, is the chain-link fence with a KEEP OUT sign, smokestacks, and latticework of imposing metal towers and high-voltage power lines at the end of the block. Surrounded by single-family homes and a school, the four-unit Holly Power Plant looms above the trees.

After we unroll and tack down the map with coffee mugs, Almanza looks up. "First, we made it color-coded. Then we got really mad."

Most of Austin’s neighborhoods and the area around its famous public swimming hole, Barton Springs, are a relaxing blue (for parks and other city property) and yellow (for single-family homes). But East Austin looks bruised, with blocks of purple and red–for industrial and commercial–crowded within its boundaries at three times the rate for the rest of the city. Many single-family homes were built on East Austin land zoned as industrial, so the property has less value and is difficult to insure; it also means that on this property a resident can and often does run an auto-body repair and paint shop, or other toxic business, out of his home.

"We’re about to make history," says Almanza. "It took two years and a lot of arguing, but the East Austin Neighborhood Plan is going to down-zone over 600 parcels, mostly single-family residences, from industrial to residential, and to restrict any more industrial from coming here."

Later, on a half-hour community radio program called "The PODER Environmental Justice Show," the women explain the rezoning proposal and give out every single city councilor’s phone number. "Dr. Herrera," as she’s referred to on-air by her friend, encourages people to call and make sure councilors vote to approve the plan. Almanza wears headphones and handles the controls like a pro, interspersing her political updates with riffs from Santana.

A few weeks later, their hard work pays off: The rezoning plan that once seemed impossible passes.

Austin is a vibrant, complicated town. It has produced some of the best homegrown music and the worst municipal zoning in the nation. The cultural dynamic that nurtured the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimmie Dale Gilmore is hard to pinpoint, but the source of Austin’s planning ills is clear. In 1931, the city implemented a "Master Plan" that steered minorities–mostly Mexicans and blacks–toward a section east of downtown (all other neighborhoods were termed "white residential" in the zoning plan). Desegregation laws have since forced this kind of official redlining off the books, but long-established Mexican-American and African-American families still live in the Govalle and Johnston neighborhoods of East Austin today, as do newly arrived immigrants.

That same Master Plan also zoned East Austin for industry and light commercial like liquor stores and pawn shops. Though many single-family homes were down-zoned in the new plan, currently operating industries can, for the most part, continue uninterrupted. Almanza and Herrera aren’t happy about this glitch, and continue to work to change it.

A stone’s throw from the kindergarten swings and jungle gym at Zavala Elementary, for example, a large and noisy metalworks shop runs at full bore.

Throughout the day, as children run around on the school’s dirt-and-grass playground, fumes emanate from the open dock-doors of Pure Casting Incorporated. On the sidewalk in front of the facility is a fluorescent yellow sign: An adult figure holds the hand of a child; beneath, drivers are cautioned that it’s a 20-mile-per-hour school zone. Yet, there is nothing to warn parents of the hydrochloric acid, propane, and mineral spirits used on the factory premises.

Inside the school, one of a series of community meetings organized by PODER is about to begin. Nine women, none of whom speaks English, sit in child-size chairs. Two babies and a toddler are in various stages of fidget on their mothers’ laps. The only men present are Chief Carl Wren of the Austin Fire Department and firefighter Steve Gibbs, who has been brought along to translate. Herrera starts by introducing herself and Almanza in English and Spanish, then tells the women that the fire chief will answer questions and concerns they have about Pure Casting and the nearby Holly Power Plant.

Chief Wren begins by telling the women that Pure Casting has reduced the size of its chemical storage significantly and that most of the fuel oil has been taken away from Holly. Epifania Salazar sits with her daughter and grandchild. She immediately raises her hand. "Why not get rid of all of it?" she asks in Spanish. Wren says it’s the city council that has the authority to do that; he’s just here to give information. After more questions about the presence of hydrochloric acid at Pure Casting, Wren acknowledges that the chemical does in fact emit chlorine gas. "But it’s much more irritating than dangerous," he says.

"But over time doesn’t chlorine affect the respiratory system?" asks Salazar.

"Yes, but we’re talking about the stuff that’s in swimming pools," Wren answers. Almanza looks at the women and says in Spanish, "There may be chlorine in swimming pools but it’s in tiny amounts," then turns to Wren. "Shouldn’t we be looking at synergies?" she asks. "For instance, if you have asthma–and asthma rates are very high in East Austin–wouldn’t you be more susceptible to chemicals like this? Or if you have allergies?" Wren responds that unless there is some kind of "catastrophic event," there shouldn’t be a problem. (According to Neil Carman, an environmental scientist who worked for years at the state’s air-pollution control agency in Austin, concentrated amounts of hydrochloric acid can attack lung tissue in humans of any age, but particularly children.)

Other women voice concern about their kids, who attend Zavala. One complains about the rotten-egg smell at the school. Wren responds that just because it smells bad doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, and then goes on to tell them about the chemicals at the Holly Power Plant (sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide as well as 300 gallons of diesel fuel). He gives a number to call if they detect particularly bad odors or fires at either location.

"They say it’s not dangerous," says Salazar after the men leave. "Maybe that’s true for adults but it’s the children I’m concerned about. They have to breathe those strong fumes every day on the playground. It burns their throats."

When I ask Almanza what she thought of the presentation, she says, "Bubbles over my head the whole time!"

Almanza was on Austin’s Planning Commission until 2000 and is now on the city’s environmental board. Herrera is a consultant on projects related to health, environment, and education. Some who have tangled with the two women over zoning changes say they can be confrontational. Steven Rossiter, an urban planner for the city, worked with them for two years on the East Austin Neighborhood Plan. "We’ve enjoyed good relations but we haven’t always agreed," says Rossiter. He jokes that it’s the city council that doesn’t much like to see the women walk through its doors. But he acknowledges, "Sometimes you’re just not heard unless you get up in someone’s face about your concerns. Susana and Sylvia have been effective in giving voice to issues that otherwise would not have gotten a hearing."

He adds, "Almost every neighborhood the city works with has NIMBY issues, but you have to compare ‘We don’t want this daycare center near us’ with ‘We don’t want these underground tanks containing toxic chemicals near us.’ PODER made that distinction very clear."

Pure Casting is just the latest of several high-profile initiatives for PODER. The December after the group was formed 12 years ago, Sylvia Herrera was reading through the public notices when she came across an item that scared her. Six oil companies that own a 52-acre property used to store fuel were applying for a permit to continue emitting benzene and xylene, two known carcinogens. The property was a block and a half from her home.

"That caught my attention. I’d never realized those chemicals were coming out of the Tank Farm in the first place," Herrera says, using the locals’ name for the facility. She called Almanza.

"I said, ‘Sylvia, what are you doing reading public notices, and right around Christmas?’" says Almanza with a smile. "‘Can’t we take a break for the holidays?’"

Herrera wouldn’t be put off. She told Almanza they needed to organize quickly; the deadline for public comment was January 15. Herrera developed a health questionnaire and went door to door with Almanza and other PODER volunteers. "It was a check-off list, a way to introduce ourselves, and a way to find out what was happening in the community," says Herrera. "We’d meet people and they’d say, ‘God, I thought it was just my kids that were having nosebleeds. I didn’t realize that everybody in this neighborhood has children that get them.’" The media caught the story and made it headline news. CNN visited, as did CBS. Over the course of the yearlong fight, which ended with the companies’ agreeing to move the fuel-storage tanks to an unpopulated area, the Austin American-Statesman ran more than 300 stories on the Tank Farm debate.

One of the young volunteers on the campaign was Raul Alvarez, who joined PODER in 1992, shortly after he moved to Austin to begin graduate school in urban planning. In 2000, he ran for and won a spot on Austin’s city council, and credits PODER for his grassroots political education (he was recently reelected to a second term). "With the Tank Farm, PODER was taking on megacorporations like Exxon, Texaco, and Chevron," Alvarez says. "These are companies that usually get their way, but we organized, involved the community, and closed them down."

After the Tank Farm victory, which won PODER a Special Service Award from the Sierra Club in 1993, a massive recycling plant owned by Browning Ferris Industries (BFI) got caught in PODER’s community sweep. Rodents, noise, loose trash, and traffic had plagued BFI and its neighbors since the plant’s opening, but residents could get no relief. PODER worked with the neighborhood and was able to convince the city government to down-zone the land from industrial to office. Eventually, the city bought the property from BFI, and the company moved its operations.

"Once we provided information, people took action to protect their communities," says Herrera of the Tank Farm and BFI fights. "We always tell people, ‘Your voice is your vote.’ People have a right to speak on issues that affect them, whether or not they have proper documents or have been in prison; it doesn’t matter."

Councilor Alvarez is proud of PODER’s victories but worries that success may put the group at odds with some of its environmental allies. "Now that these industries have moved out and we’ve gotten rid of the threat of further industrial growth with the East Austin Neighborhood Plan, this area is beginning to look more attractive. It’s also close to downtown and the land is comparatively cheap. Gentrification is a very big challenge."

A 2000 map outlining Austin’s "smart growth" plan illustrates the problem. As a result of a campaign by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, a huge chunk of west Austin (where the aquifer that feeds the Barton Springs swimming hole is located) has been placed off-limits to most new growth. One of the main targets for redevelopment–including housing, a new commercial corridor, a light-rail system, and the Lance Armstrong bikeway–is East Austin. "There’s no other land left in the inner core," says Almanza. She adds that the redevelopment process is already well under way.

When I met Steven Rossiter, the city planner, he said of Almanza and Herrera: "They see the smart-growth plan as a threat–that it could displace people and change the character of existing neighborhoods."

Almanza counters: "True, we’re worried about what it will do to our community. But we’re not against smart growth, just like we’re not against recycling just because we opposed the BFI recycling plant. People need to think about results. It’s great to recycle, but do folks think about where that stuff goes? Smart growth is good, but what happens to the homeowners who can’t pay the increased taxes in upgraded neighborhoods? The city says it’s going to build affordable housing, but it’s only affordable if you can afford it."

Herrera is even more pointed. "I think ‘smart growth’ is a new version of the 1931 Master Plan. The city is trying to push us further out." The women have begun offering workshops in how to protest raised property taxes that result from gentrification.

Already they’ve managed to unhook "historical" homes from their surrounding neighborhoods, so that the increased value of such homes will not increase appraisals–and property taxes–for the neighbors. The conflict is shaping up as a new kind of land-use debate, with challenges for mainstream environmental groups that have not seen gentrification as their issue. "We’ll be here to talk with them about it," says Almanza with a smile. "We’re not going anywhere."


Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra’s writer/editor.

 

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