Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Residents worry dust blowing into their homes may be contaminated

January 18,2006
Kaitlin Bell
The Monitor


MISSION — The strong winds whipping the Rio Grande Valley on Monday night and Tuesday were a hazard for some expressway drivers struggling to keep their cars from swerving, and a nuisance for business people who gripped stacks of papers tightly to their chests and long-haired women who had to push stray locks out of their eyes.

For the residents near the old Hayes-Sammons chemical plant in Mission, though, the 30- to 40-mph winds were downright alarming.

It had been less than a week since the Environmental Protection Agency released a report revealing chemical contamination more than 100 times the state’s standard just one foot beneath the surface of the soil around the former pesticide plant.

Residents worry the fine brown dust that blew under doors and pooled in yards and gutters is something worse than plain dirt.

"It was like a sandstorm last night, but it was the contaminated dust," said Lupita Garcia, who suffers from asthma, among other health problems, including cancer. She attributes her poor health to more than 60 years of living a block from the plant.

Garcia and neighbors, many of whom also suffer medical ailments they blame on the plant, said the dust was not only making it harder to breathe, it was feeding into their fears of exposure.

Rolando Vallejo and his next-door neighbor, Norma Baugus, were in their front yards across the street from the Hayes-Sammons site Tuesday morning, trying to kill a giant bug buzzing around Vallejo’s front door, as winds blew around them. Baugus is also Vallejo’s home-care nurse.

Vallejo, who suffers from cancer, kidney failure and asthma, said he was breathing with a little more difficulty than usual Tuesday. But since his house’s air system was circulating the dust from outside, there was no sense in being cooped up all day, he said.

Still, people should minimize their time outside, say scientists and health experts, even as they are hesitant to speculate about the exact risks residents might be facing because of potentially toxic particles in the air — the EPA report did not include comprehensive testing of surface dust.

"EPA said there’s no hazard, but frankly with the high levels of pesticides that are down in the soil, very, very close to the surface, I would just recommend that people keep their doors and their windows shut," said Neil Carman, a former state environmental inspector for industrial sites and director of the Texas Sierra club’s clean air program.

The Hidalgo County Health Department was recommending that anyone with asthma or other breathing problems avoid spending too much time outside, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality air monitors were showing elevated dust levels throughout South Texas, said Brian Lambeth, a senior meteorologist at the agency.

The instrument that usually measures larger air particles at TCEQ’s Mission monitoring site was broken Monday and Tuesday, but Lambeth said that dry weather and winds gusting above 25 mph would be plenty to stir dust into the air. According to the National Weather Service in Brownsville, peak winds at McAllen-Miller International Airport reached 45 mph Monday night and 33 mph Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, residents were left to their own devices.

Garcia donned a face mask before going out to survey the accumulated piles in her yard Tuesday morning, and had a cleaning lady sweep what had blown inside from under the door.

She also tried to make sure her granddaughter didn’t play in it.

"Stand up, mihijita, it’s dirt in there," she told 3-year-old Mary Giselle as she removed her own face mask and shut the door against the wind.

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Kaitin Bell covers Mission, Starr County and general assignments for The Monitor. You can reach her at (956) 683-4446.
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