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Getting the lead out.

Dallas, Texas

West Dallas residents celebrated when the Clinton Administration declared last May that they live in the largest lead-contaminated Superfund site in the United States. Portions of one of the nation's biggest housing projects and five schools, all located within five square miles of a now-defunct lead smelter, are slated for cleanup (although Federal Environmental Protection Agency records indicate as much as sixteen square miles of West Dallas are contaminated).

Any other group of citizens might be less than pleased by the Government's grim report. But people who live in West Dallas have fought for fifteen years to get the Government to recognize the hideous contamination in their community.

A lead smelter owned by RSR Corporation operated in West Dallas for sixty years, until it wa shut down by court order in Plant officials conducted a cursory cleanup, and the EPA declared it complete. But Luis Sepulveda, a disabled railroad worker, noticed that his family and neighbors were still getting ill, and his nephews experienced nosebleeds and bone and joint pain whenever they visited the Sepulvedas at their West Dallas home. When Sepulveda began asking questions, Government officials denied there was a problem and dismissed his request for a human-health assessment of the area. "They told us to keep our houses cleaner," he says.

"Then one day I saw this guy on the news," says Sepulveda. That guy was Jim Shermbeck of Texans United, a grass-roots group that fights for citizens with environmental concerns. Shermbeck helped Sepulveda and his neighbors collect dust samples in their homes and conduct their own tests. The results showed widespread lead contamination. "The report said my parents should evacuate the house immediately," says Sepulveda. "It said my mother's house was too contaminated to live in."

Sepulveda organized the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice, which now includes some 3,500 members. The coalition began writing letters, storming City Council meetings, and picketing EPA offices. When city leaders continued denying there was any contamination in West Dallas, Sepulveda, with the coalition behind him, decided to share with city officials some of the lead the city considered "no problem."

"We went around to slag sites and took shovels full and distributed them around Dallas," says Sepulveda. "We took slag to City Hall. We wanted to share it with council members, but the city was right behind us cleaning up."

To Sepulveda, it seemed that political forces were trying to cover up the contamination in West Dallas. Then, in 1991, the Federal department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $68-million renovation plan for 2,000 units in the West Dallas Housing Projects. "I couldn't believe it," says Sepulveda. "They were going to pack 2,000 more families into lead-contaminated housing." Sepulveda and the West Dallas Coalition filed an historic lawsuit against the city of Dallas, the state of Texas, and the Federal EPA charging "environmental racism."

City leaders and the Dallas Housing Authority called Sepulveda a threat to the renovation plan and to minority employment. But this month, HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros scrapped the renovation plan, citing lead contamination and the further creation of segregated ghettos as his major concerns.

"It's what we've been saying all along," says Sepulveda. "The minority community has been pitted against each other down here over this issue. We need housing desperately. We need jobs desperately. But if they build on this site, they may as well build a cemetery, because that's what it will be."

Sepulveda is not letting down his guard. "We're going to be their shadow," he says. "We are going to force them to conduct a human-health assessment. And this time we're going to make sure we get justice."
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:West Dallas, TX, lead contamination
Author:Countryman, Carol
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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