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Safe Recycling and Protecting Public Health: An Update on Efforts to Reduce Metal Recycler Emissions in San Antonio

By Debra Ponce

As the climate justice organizer for Public Citizen in San Antonio, I’m deeply invested in fighting climate redlining, particularly in neighborhoods like Quintana on the city’s south side. 

Growing up near what became known as the Toxic Triangle, a residential area near Kelly Air Force Base, I witnessed the devastating consequences of contaminated water, alarming cancer rates, asthma and unexplainable illnesses. Moved by this reality, I’ve dedicated myself to empowering communities like Quintana to advocate for the rights and opportunities of its residents, and a better quality of life. In partnership with local groups, we strive to address environmental injustices, like ensuring residents can withstand rising temperatures and breathe clean air. 

My work extends beyond Quintana. Working with residents from all parts of San Antonio, we navigate obstacles and foster positive change. I’m eager to share our progress and continue this journey toward a brighter, healthier future for all. 

An issue is the recurrence of fires from local metal recycling facilities and the fact that recorded violations are sometimes ignored, sometimes for years. Each time there is an incident, those living closest to the smoke endure unclean air for hours. Some families, especially those with children or loved ones with respiratory issues, are forced to leave their homes. It has been especially troubling when some fires lasted approximately 10 hours. Those unable to leave had to stay and risk inhaling whatever could be in the air. Those who can leave are forced to stay away from their homes until the situation improves.

While neighborhood associations surrounding the facilities were discussing these issues with uncertainty, unsure how to resolve the issue, the Thompson Neighborhood Association took action. Its members have been in the direct path of much of the smoke and particulate matter when an incident takes place. The core group – led by association vice president Rudy Lopez, Joey Cipriano, Larry Garcia, restaurant owner Linda Bocanegra, president Tricia Fayuadh, and myself – led the effort. It marked the beginning of neighborhood associations uniting to confront and overcome environmental challenges.

San Antonio City Council Member Teri Castillo deserves credit for taking up our cause by listening to the community outcry and filing a Council Consideration Request (CCR) that would create a task force that would make recommendations for updating the city’s ordinances that govern emissions from metal recyclers and fire prevention requirements.

Council Member Castillo’s CCR is pending at city hall and making steady progress toward a potential vote by the full council.

Starting last November, I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with ten neighborhood associations. Their passionate leaders have come together to drive change and address recycler emissions. We are united in our call for recyclers to be responsible community members.  

We recognize that these companies are important to our community and provide employment opportunities in an industry that helps reduce waste. Many are doing it right. We are deeply concerned about the ones who cause health concerns and worry among our residents.

The crucial step following the potential approval of the CRR  is ensuring that the affected community has representation on the task force. 

We will keep you updated on our progress. 

Debra Ponce is an organizer for the Texas office of Public Citizen. She lives and works in San Antonio.