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Chemical Plant Contamination     |     Fireman Kidnapped

Chemical plant contamination leaves legacy of illness.

Afflicted residents struggle with hundred-dollar payout checks while lawyers take in millions.

The Hayes-Sammons chemical plant in downtown Mission at one time shot pesticide byproducts out of a hundred-foot high exhaust fan that towers over one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. When the dust settled, it looked like snow. Photos from the 1940s and ’50s tell the story. Children played amid the powder, and when the neighborhood flooded, which it often did, the chemical-laden water flowed down the streets, settling into lawns and driveways blocks away. Some of the employees from the Hayes-Sammons plant are still alive to tell the story. How they handled chemicals without gloves and masks. How sometimes children wore the used chemical bags over their heads, and would then pass out cold.

Those stories aren’t the most horrific.

One lady in the neighborhood has six breasts — and each lactated a few years ago when she was pregnant. At least one resident has only three toes, and several have six. Deformed teeth. Short and long limbs. Hundreds, mostly children of parents who lived with the dust, have strange cysts that pop up indiscriminately — inside necks, on biceps, triceps, sometimes next to the brain.

THE CENTER OF THE TRAGEDY

Ester Salinas is one of those residents with a brain cyst. It might be pointless, however, to mention Salinas. She’s been written about so many times in the decades of newspaper stories about the contamination here in south Mission that the tragedy might be considered to revolve completely around her. Luckier than most, she’s since moved out of the neighborhood. But she was raised a block away from the plant, and raised her children there, too. Her four children have the cysts, and one of her grandchildren was born with spina bifida — a defect that causes the spinal column to protrude. She didn’t know the history of the two contaminated sites, the still-standing Hayes-Sammons plant on Holland Avenue and the demolished Helena plant just a few blocks away on Oblate Avenue, until one day in 1999 when she saw men dressed in chemical-proof suits testing the soil. It was too late.

Those men were from the agency now known as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and they’d been testing the area since the 1980s. She never knew that the Environmental Protection Agency had designated the area as a Superfund site in 1987, after finding dozens of toxic chemicals, some at thousands and millions of times above safe levels. The EPA required a blacktop cap over the site, and TCEQ cleaned off the topsoil on some of the land and later recommended that residents wash their hands continuously, all day long, and not eat any fruit or vegetables grown in their yards. Some of the older residents remember the 1980s cleanup, but some actually thought it was a movie being filmed at the Hayes-Sammons plant.

THE CHRONICLE OF DEATH

Salinas rarely mentions the gravity of her family’s afflictions, or the time and money she spends caring for them before and after her days as a coach at La Joya ISD.

The sickness of the entire community has overwhelmed her, so her children seem mere afterthoughts, as if familial ties have become meaningless amid a communitywide scourge. After 20 years of recording the stories of hundreds of ill and near dead, Salinas has become a living chronicle of pure misery. As she drives around the neighborhood introducing yet another reporter to death and chemicals, that chronicle comes to life.

“These people are all sick. Mr. Martinez, look at you. The mayor says there’s nothing wrong … there’s nothing wrong … yeah right, you liar.” Salinas conversation isn’t conversation. It chops, then runs. She switches topics quickly as case after case of illness comes to mind and memories of bureaucratic inefficiency whip through the cracks of those images.

“This lady who lives here,” she says, gesturing toward a wood-frame house two blocks from the chemical plant, “Cancer. All her kids sick, Her daughter died of cancer. Right over there, Avila, I told her she had to fight. She said ‘I don’t want to fight.’ Now she’s dead and her husband. I told her … I told her.”

As Salinas drives, she identifies the families who’ve moved out, and how many from those relocated families have died or are sick. Of those who stayed, about one-third have cancer — as many as 480 people in about as many homes. She knows all those sick and deceased by name, and she knows the stories of their lives. The love affairs. Children born in and out of wedlock. And where the 500 miscarried and stillborn babies are buried.

LITTLE COMPENSATION

Joe Salinas was born with a club foot and a right arm that simply doesn’t work. Though his arm has developed to the size of a young boy’s, he can’t use it at all. It doesn’t bend at the elbow. His fist doesn’t clench, or fingers close. The arm and hand just hang there, useless, everywhere he goes.

He’s sure that being born next to the Helena Chemical plant has something to do with his purposeless leg and foot. When he was young, he played outside while the plant blew its residue across the sky. He has ten brothers and sisters, all who have a deformity or sickness. But Joe, 58 years old, is the worst off.

Lead attorney Ramon Garcia, the Hidalgo County Judge, has been handling lawsuits that blame dozens of companies for the pollution. He’s settled two lawsuits so far that have netted $7.3 million. Joe’s share was $1,400.

Garcia and more than 20 attorneys on the case have earned more than $3 million, plus expense fees that lawyers collected above and beyond their 40 percent take. Garcia said that the settlements so far are just the tip of the iceberg and that the real culprits — the companies that manufactured the chemicals — should pay considerably more.

But there’s a chance that the Texas Supreme Court may make it nearly impossible for the chemical manufacturers to be sued. Last year, the chemical companies asked for a stay in an ongoing lawsuit, arguing that some 20 companies including Dow Chemical and Monsanto should be tried separately.

Ideally, Garcia said that he’ll earn his 2,000 clients enough to buy a home outside the polluted area. But with some of the most seriously afflicted residents receiving absolutely nothing in the latest settlement, and others being dropped from the case entirely, more and more residents have little hope that they’ll ever be able to move from homes that they know are contaminated and dangerous. If Garcia doesn’t come through with enough settlement money for relocation, lawyers will be the only winners in a decade of lawsuits that have seen dozens of potential plaintiffs die of cancer and other diseases — while a new generation is born and raised.

STILL TOXIC AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

The EPA knows full well that there is still a huge threat here in this Mission neighborhood. The agency started cleaning the area in the 1980s after first filing a lawsuit against Helena Chemical and Tex-Ag Inc., scooping off topsoil that tested billions and millions of times higher than safe-level standards for chemicals like DDT and Chlordane. That highly contaminated soil was then buried on Perez Street, which borders a row of homes. Congressman Lloyd Dogget recently helped leverage political pressure for another round of testing; those results were released at the beginning of the year. The EPA is now, more than 20 years after the first toxic assessment, again planning a major cleanup after finding that the site registers unsafe levels of dozens of chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases.

The agency, in its 1980s assessment, demanded that the Mission school district put blacktop around its maintenance building, which edges the old chemical plant site. Two elementary schools and the city’s open-air water supply — all within a few blocks of the site — apparently weren’t close enough to demand protection.

MADNESS WITH A METHOD

Ester Salinas sees through everything, She knows it’s stupid to think that black top can keep the chemicals from spreading, especially in an area that floods every year. She said she also knows sites where barrels filled with chemicals were buried along canals that feed the municipal water supply, barrels that haven’t been recovered. Also, there are other sites where former workers say Helena buried barrels, sites that edge the neighborhood.

When it rains, a brown froth bubbles up from the soil on Perez Street, where the EPA buried toxic topsoil some two decades ago. And when the sun comes out, the air turns acrid, tingeing the back of the mouth with the bitter, metallic taste of a penny. Last week, as rains poured over Mission, children played barefoot in this water.

“You depend on legal counsel and you get burned,” Ester said, with an obsessed clarity like Hamlet, the only character in Shakespeare’s play who knew that his mother had murdered his father.

Hamlet admitted to his lunacy. (“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”)

Salinas, though perhaps less poetic, strikes a similar chord. “Liars, liars, liars,” she says, or maybe screams, as she remembers the promises made to her by attorneys and the claims of state agencies that the area has been cleaned.

Salinas, like Hamlet, has lost credibility. In February, on the same day that the $2.8 million agreement was made between Garcia and Union Pacific, The Monitor ran a front-page story connecting her to improper practice of law for signing a contract that would give her attorney’s fees in the case. Attorney Mauro Reyna, who early on referred his case and clients to Ramon Garcia, contends that Salinas drew up the contract.

Salinas says that’s “bullshit,” although she admits to signing the contract, hoping to be paid for starting the lawsuit to begin with and doing the heavy lifting of gathering evidence throughout years to get the case to an attorney. “How could I get an attorney to sign an illegal document?” she said. “He (Reyna) is the attorney, not me”.

Paranoid, like all tragic heroes must be, Salinas thinks that the document was leaked to the press near the day of the Union Pacific settlement for two reasons: 1) to draw attention away from what she called a ‘pitiful’ settlement, and 2) to ruin her credibility.

Now, everywhere she goes, she hears, or imagines, people who once rested all their hopes on her now whispering that she tried to steal settlement money from sick children and dying elders.

At 6’ 1”, with American Indian blood that has gifted her the physique of a warrior, the sheer strength in Salinas’ presence is menacing. Her intelligence, too, is forceful, all the more strong because her constant battle is sickness and death. She, the first person to collect stories and gather evidence, was the only person who fought Garcia’s settlement with Union Pacific. The breakdown is simple enough to understand. The two lawsuits settled for $7.3 million. The lawyers get 40 percent of that ($2.92 million), leaving $4.38 million. Then you have the legal expenses and court costs that, estimated at $1 million, leaves $3.38 million, or $1,690 for each of the approximately 2,000 plaintiffs.

But plaintiffs didn’t have to accept those numbers. Ester wanted a full-on courtroom battle, tried in front of a jury of her peers. But she said that Garcia was pushing plaintiffs hard to settle.

She urged plaintiffs — at one time also mostly her friends — to refuse the settlement and not accept their small checks. Few listened. “What are you going to buy with your money?” she would implore. “Some beer? Some food? Some cigarettes?”

But the front-page story was effective. Now, only a small, core group trusts her at all. Like Hamlet, Salinas is imagining her own death as the only solution. And with a brain cyst, that’s not difficult to do. With her out of the picture, maybe no one else here would fight — really fight, in a way that carries you to the edge of insanity, kicking and scratching for anything and everything but with the possibility of ending up with nothing. Salinas doesn’t seem to try to make sense of the injustice anymore. The chemicals, the toxins, the promises … the sickness and betrayals … have seemed to wind themselves into an impenetrable problem that only her sheer will might be able to pierce — making words and phrases pointless obstacles to the truth. History and the future now mean only misery to her, and they’ll continue to, until she tears down this entire neighborhood — maybe with her own two hands — and moves everybody far, far away.