|Tank Farm Campaign - 1992-'93
Tanks But No Tanks: An East Austin Grassroots Victory
PODER, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, was formed to increase East
Austin residents’ participation in corporate and governmental decisions related to environmental
hazards and the impact on our neighborhoods. PODER was formed by a group of Chicana/o East
Austin activists and community leaders in 1991.
PODER has worked on land use and zoning issues and has been successful in relocating some of the
most hazardous facilities impacting the health of East Austin residents. Through PODER’s
Transportation and Quality of Life Program, PODER has had traffic signals, drainage, and sidewalks
installed. PODER has challenged bus fare increases and toll roads. PODER Young Scholars for
Justice Leadership Development Program has ensured that the next generations of community
leaders are involved in community issues and policy making. PODER continues to work to create a
balance between nature kind and human kind. PODER’s activities in the Keepers of the Roy
Guerrero Colorado River Park and Oak Springs Water Quality Preserve works on creating a balance.
PODER offers numerous projects to promote community empowerment.
The issue, however, that brought the greatest attention and publicity to our organizing and advocacy
effort in Austin was our involvement in the East Austin Tank Farm issue.
For over 35 years residents living next to several bulk fuel storage tank facilities (a.k.a. “tank farm”) in
East Austin, Texas had been exposed to toxic chemicals coming from these facilities. The tank farm
facilities, whose owners were Mobil Oil Company, Star enterprise (Texaco), Chevron U.S.A. Products
Co., Coastal States Crude Gathering Company, Citgo Petroleum Corporation, and Exxon Company U.
S.A., were located in a predominately Latino and African-American neighborhood. Millions of gallons
of petroleum products are stored at the tank farm.
A closer look at the demographics in the area where these toxic tanks are located is revealing. The
zip codes are where these facilities are sited is 59.3% African-American, 38.0% Latino, and 15.0%
white. The area immediately across the street from the fuel tanks is 61% Latino, 33% African
American, and 22.9% white.
This was a clear case of environmental racism.
On December 18, 1991, Sylvia Herrera, a PODER
member and resident in the area, read a public notice I
the local newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman,
that Mobil Oil would continue emitting the following air
contaminants: gasoline, diesel, benzene, oxides of
nitrogen, and carbon monoxide. Susana Almanza and
Sylvia immediately began to investigate Mobil Oil
Corporation’s files at the Texas Air Control Board
(TACB), the state agency which regulated air quality in
1991. On January 14, 1992, PODER sent a letter to
the TACB requesting a public hearing on Mobil’s permit
request. PODER challenged the permit because Mobil’s facility is located in a residential area with
Govalle Elementary School within 3000 feet. PODER members were alarmed by the fact that at least
five other schools were within a mile radius of the facilities along with a high concentration of fugitive
benzene emissions and the possible adverse health impacts that could be associated with benzene.
(Benzene is a known carcinogen).
PODER immediately reported its findings to the East Austin Strategy Team (EAST), a coalition of
African-American neighborhood associations, chaired by Ron Davis. EAST also challenged Mobil Oil’
s permit request.
By the following week, PODER and East organized a community
meeting with the residents in the immediate vicinity of the
tank farm. The residents complained about chronic headaches,
rashes, nosebleeds, watery eyes, and other ailments. According
to several parents, children in the neighborhood had
experienced outbreaks of inexplicable skin rashes.
In order to raise broader community awareness and to seek the involvement of local elected officials,
PODER and EAST sponsored a “Toxic Tour” of the area on February 10, 1992. elected officials from
the city, county and state level, as well as neighborhood association representatives and school
leaders, participated in the tour. The tour and its accompanying publicity highlighted the proximity
and the impact of the gasoline storage tanks on the community.
As a result of the support of several elected officials, community involvement and continued queries
by PODER and EAST, soil and groundwater contamination at the site was also brought to light.
Contaminated groundwater, with unsafe levels of benzene and other gasoline-related toxins, had
been confirmed at the tank farm area according to the monitoring done by the Texas Water
Commission (TWC). Due to the contamination on-site and the “perception” of contamination off-site,
the Travis County Central Appraisal District depreciated the value of more than 600 homes
surrounding the tank farm by as much as 50 percent or more.
The residents in the area felt insulted and neglected because they were never informed by the TWC
that groundwater and soil contamination existed at the tank farm site dating back to 1987 and possibly
even earlier. No one informed the surrounding residents about the contamination and the toxic
chemicals that were being emitted in the community. Many children, women and the elderly were
suffering with illnesses and never knew that the tank farm was exposing them to toxic emissions.
Affected residents organized and in the process, with the assistance of PODER, formed a new
neighborhood association. The Alf Neighborhood Association consisted of residents living as close
as several feet to the tank farm. Mexican and African-American neighborhood associations in the area
formed alliances that empowered them to challenge the enforcement and monitoring activities of the
TACB, the TWC, and the Austin City Council. The community also insisted that the Austin/Travis
County Health Department, State Attorney General’s Office and the Governor of Texas take an active
role in resolving the issue.
The residents knew what they wanted and, working with PODER and EAST, made the following
recommendations to the several state and local authorities: 1) a comprehensive health study of
residents and former residents living near the fuel storage area. 2) An East Austin health clinic to
provide free medical assistance to residents and former residents in the area. 3) The immediate
cleanup of the sol and groundwater contamination in the area. 4) Financial compensation for the
property owners in the area whose property has been devalued as a result of the contamination
caused by the storage tanks. 5) The shut down of operations of the storage facilities and the
permanent removal of the tanks to a property zoned area not adjacent to residential neighborhoods
or other environmentally sensitive areas.
In our efforts throughout the year, we sought the assistance from various regulatory agencies and the
City Council to shut down the facilities. The community’s pleas fell on deaf ears. The Travis County
Commissioners’ Court responded to the residents’ pleas for assistance and insistence on immediate
action. On May 19, 1992, the County Commissioners unanimously voted to allocate $150,000 for
Travis County attorney Ken Oden to conduct a civil and criminal investigation of the tank farm.
In the thirteen months that PODER, EAST and several neighborhood and community groups actively
addressed the issue, many obstacles were encountered and victories achieved. Significantly, due to
the public pressure by the community and the civil and criminal investigation by the county attorney,
the oil companies began signing agreements to relocate and cease their current operation in East
Austin. The first company, Chevron, signed in August, 1992 and the rest of the companies, with the
exception of Exxon followed shortly thereafter.
Due to Exxon Company U.S.A.’s unwillingness to relocate,
PODER and EAST initiated a letter writing campaign on
October 21, 1992 asking H.J. Longwell, the president of the
company, to agree to negotiate the relocation of their facility
within 30 days. Due to Exxon’s lack of response to this req-
uest, a city, state and regional boycott was announced. In
these efforts, PODER received the support of the Texas
Network of Environmental and Economic Justice and the
Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice
(SNEEJ). I Austin, the letter writing campaign and boycott were
supported by a variety of civic, neighborhood and environmental organizations.
After more than a year addressing the environmental and public health impact of the tank farm, the
residents and community organizations that waged this campaign succeeded in obtaining an
agreement between the county attorney and Exxon to relocate its facility on February 18, 1993. The
agreement was reached the afternoon prior to a caravan to Houston, Texas which was to culminate
with a picket at Exxon Company U.S.A.’s corporate office.
The people of East Austin demonstrated to these polluting corporations that they are and must be
accountable to the people. The victory of relocating the tan farm brought to the forefront the state
regulatory agencies’ and city government’s racist policies of siting and not properly monitoring
hazardous facilities in communities of color. This issue brought greater awareness in the city of
Austin of the need to protect the environment in East Austin, the inner city, and of the inordinate
impact of environmental hazards on Austin’s communities of color.
In addition, there were and continue to be statewide repercussions due to the organizing work don in
Austin. Largely as a response to the East Austin Tank Farm issue, and other examples of
environmental racism across the state, the Texas Air Control Board and the Texas Water
Commission formed the Task Force on Environmental Equity and Justice to give recommendations,
among other areas, on rectifying the polices and procedures of both these agencies that perpetuate
environmental racism. The chair of the task force was a PODER member, Antonio Diaz. Further, in
the last legislative session (1993), several bills were proposed which grew out of the East Austin Tank
Farm experience. Among those were bills mandating buffer zones around facilities that store fuel or
other hazardous materials and a bill which would require the printing of public notices for air quality
permits in a language other than English if a certain percentage of the population in the area
predominately speaks another language.
In 1994-95 PODER began to work on the root issue of the placement of the Tank Farm in East Austin,
zoning. PODER organized to down-zone the tank farm properties to more compatible zoning for the
neighborhood area. PODER worked to eliminate industrial zoning that the Tank Farm owners once
had. PODER assured area residents that no other industrial facility would ever be developed next to
area residents. PODER also surveyed area residents to learn what types of business and/or services
the community would like to see built on the 52 acre site. PODER continues to work on
redevelopment plans for the area.
Today, area residents are breathing cleaner air.