MISSION, October 9 - Zoe J. Alaniz’s 16th birthday party on Monday evening served as a gathering place for those suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses associated with the Mission Superfund site.
Alaniz cannot walk because he has spina bifida and is hydrocephalic. He said that despite his disabilities he believes he is one of the lucky ones.
“I am one of the lucky ones. I am a Superfund survivor,” Alaniz told the Guardian. “According to the lawyers representing us in our class action lawsuit, 500 Mission babies were dead on arrival, either as a result of their mothers living near the Superfund site or because their father worked at the mixing plant.”
Alaniz was asked to describe his life in a wheelchair. “It is very hard being a kid that cannot walk. I miss out on a lot of activities. But, I am lucky in that I can go to high school and I have friends like Michelle and Charlie who go with me to the games. It takes a lot to take me to functions. I am glad I am able to function but it is being very hard being a kid from the Superfund. There are a lot of kids who were affected.”
The Hayes-Sammons site in Mission was used to manufacture and store pesticides from 1950 to 1972. It housed over 20 chemical companies that produced 18 pesticides and chemicals. Of these, eight were named part of "The Dirty Dozen" by the United Nations, targeting them as the "world's most dangerous chemicals."
According to the U.N., these chemicals "are among the most dangerous of all man-made products or wastes, causing death, disease and birth defects among humans and animals" and were singled out for "urgent action."
In 1986, the federal government required the State of Texas to register its Superfund sites. Three of the top ten sites in Texas were located in Mission.
According to environmental activists, the Mission area had 12 facilities that were used to produce or store dangerous chemicals. Many of the families that lived near the sites or handled the toxic products have suffered with cancer.
Charlie Martinez, aged 25, was at Alaniz’s birthday party. He has leukemia, has had to have bone marrow transplants and lots of blood transfusions. He is now diabetic and has memory and eye vision problems.
“When I was growing up we lived four blocks from the pesticide factory. My Mom used to tell us that she used to see what looked like snow falling from the sky. But it was really the chemicals coming out of the smokestack at the factory,” Martinez said.
Rudy Garcia, aged 59, also attended the birthday party. He is a neighbor of Alaniz. As a child, Garcia used to play around the pesticide mixing plant and packing sheds. He said there were no signs posted to say the chemicals were highly toxic.
“We used to slide down the powder that covered the rocks. When it rained, the water flowing down the street had rainbow colors. Once, we found a dead man under one of the portable buildings. We hauled out of there fast because we did not want to get into trouble,” Garcia said.
Garcia said his father suffered from asthma, his mother had breast cancer, and his brother, Solomon, died aged 51 due to an aneurism and high blood pressure. “We were all very sick but no one knew what caused it,” he said.
Garcia is one of about 2,000 Mission residents who filed a class action lawsuit against the chemical companies that operated out of the Hayes-Sammons plant. He said he would like to know what has happened to that case.
“The last time we were in court was two years ago. Since then we have heard nothing from our attorneys. We hear they reached an out-of-court settlement with the chemical companies but they do not tell us anything. The attorneys are living just fine with their condos on South Padre Island but we are still suffering,” Garcia said.
Charlotte Ramsey was also at Alaniz’s 16th birthday party. Ramsey has had three cancer scares and suffers with neuromuscular problems. Her family lived three blocks from the mixing plant.
“When the boxcars flipped over the chemicals would spill out. And the fan would blow the chemicals all over the neighborhood. The white powder looked like flour but it never disintegrated. It never melted into the ground,” Ramsey recalled.
“My sisters and I had health problems growing up and we often wondered if it the Hayes-Sammons plant was the reason. We knew the pesticides killed roaches so they had to be pretty strong.”
Ramsey said one of her friends growing up lived next to a family that purchased dirt from Hayes-Sammons site. The family intended to build a bull ring as a retirement investment.
“My friend was diagnosed with scleroderma, a connective tissue disease that involves changes in the skin. She was supposed to have a lung and heart transplant but she died aged 64. She suffered a lifetime of agony,” Ramsey said.
Ramsey said that like Garcia, she is looking for answers from the attorneys handling the class action lawsuit. She said she and others started the lawsuit 14 years ago and they have yet to see a just outcome. The case landed in Judge Mario Ramirez’s 332nd District Court in Hidalgo County.
“The attorneys are supposed to be working for us. We hired them. We are their bosses. But, it is difficult to get any answers. They did write to us to thank us for our patience. It would be nice to get some compensation for all the suffering,” Ramsey said.