Susana Almanza

Putting Big Oil in its place

In 1992, six oil companies -- Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Coastal, Citgo, and Texaco -- announced plans to expand a 52-acre fuel storage facility, or "tank farm," they jointly operated in Austin, Texas. When Susana Almanza, a native of East Austin, the low-income neighborhood near the tank farm, learned of their plans, she began to question whether it should have been there in the first place.

The year before, concerned that Austin's burgeoning high-tech manufacturing industry was polluting the city's poorer neighborhoods, Almanza had co-founded People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), a community group dedicated to environmental justice. Together with PODER, Almanza began researching the tank farm and discovered that the county health department had ignored concerns about possible benzene contamination (benzene is a known carcinogen). Next, they gathered anecdotal evidence from numerous residents who had suffered regular headaches, nosebleeds, respiratory conditions, and high rates of cancer and miscarriage.

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Almanza launched a campaign to force the oil companies to relocate the tank farm. She brought busloads of East Austin residents to appear before the city council and invited state representatives, city council members, and community groups on a "toxic tour" of the site. "They could smell the gas in the air as soon as they got off the bus," she says.

Travis County Attorney Ken Oden took up the cause and ordered groundwater and air quality testing. "Almanza was asking the right questions in a state with a long-standing love affair with oil," Oden says. The tests found contamination in 71 of the 116 groundwater test wells. One well had 700 times the Texas Water Commission's acceptable limit for benzene.

Less than a year after Almanza began her campaign, all six oil companies agreed to vacate the site. But they left a mess behind. Almanza and PODER are still actively monitoring the cleanup. In March, the state released new evidence of spreading contamination near the site that it had previously withheld from local residents. Almanza and PODER have since succeeded in getting government officials to agree to hold meetings every other month to keep residents abreast of the cleanup's progress.

"It's an ongoing battle," Almanza says. "You emerge from one...and it's on to the next."