The Donna Reservoir and Canal in Donna, Texas, was developed by farmers for irrigation purposes in the early 1900s. The irrigation system is more than 400 acres and extends over seven miles from the Rio Grande River via winding canals that spider-web through agricultural fields and nearby residential colonias.

The system now supplies drinking water to the cities of Donna and Alamo in Hidalgo County.  Throughout the years, the canal and reservoir became a popular source of fishing for local residents from all around the Valley who unknowingly were putting their family and themselves at risk by eating some of the most contaminated fish in the country.

Image from Texas Department of State Health Services

It was not until 1991 when a cluster of neural tube defects in infants was identified in the region through a routine environmental review. The Environmental Protection Agency conducted an exposure study with nine families in Hidalgo and Cameron County. The study sampled fish filets from one of the families who reportedly took it from the Donna Canal system. The EPA identified the highest levels of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) ever recorded in the fish sample.

PCBs are a group of synthetic chemicals used in electrical equipment such as transformers. In addition to being cancer-causing, high levels of PCBs can damage the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune, musculoskeletal and neurological systems. Blood and urine samples taken from the family confirmed the exposure to PCBs.

Effects of high exposure to PCBs

Upon further investigation and sampling, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) concluded that “consumption of any of the sampled fish species from the Donna Irrigation System are expected to harm people’s heath.” DSHS deemed the site as a public health hazard and in 1994 went as far as placing a fish possession ban that prohibits and fines individuals $500 for taking fish from the canal. The DSHS placed signs along the canal to inform individuals of the fishing ban. They also conducted outreach to nearby communities by passing out pamphlets and holding local information sessions in hopes of reducing fishing and the consumption of contaminated fish.

The state department reached out to local restaurant to warn them of not buying fish from unlicensed vendors because of potential dangers to individual’s health. While continued analysis of fish, sediment, and water samples were conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), locals continued to access the reservoir. Although it is private property of the Donna Irrigation District #1, it remains open and accessible to individuals seeking to fish. Numerous studies later and eleven years after the discovery of PCBs in the fish from the Donna Canal, the source of the contamination was narrowed, and the EPA declared the Donna Reservoir and Canal as part of the National Priorities List in 2008.

Since the declaration of the Donna Lake as a “Superfund Site,” which refers to a source of money set aside to clean up hazardous sites, the process for remediation began in 2008. The same year the EPA and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service performed a fish kill via electroshock to rid the lake of the contaminated fish as a short-term solution (they also implemented a fish removal in 2012). While the federal agency conducted their remedial investigation to determine the nature and extent of contamination at a site, few actions were taken to actually stop people from continuing to fish.

Rafael Casanova, EPA Superfund Site Coordinator | Courtesy of EPA

In March 2016, seven years after categorizing the canal as a Superfund site, the EPA released their Ecological and Human Health Risk Assessment. The report found the source of PCBs in the canal system to be a concrete pipe, referred to as a siphon, which runs under the Arroyo Colorado and pumps water from the Rio Grande into the system. The materials that make up the siphon contain PCBs that are being released as water moves through the pipe. The PCBs settle in the water and the sediment and are consumed by aquatic life that retains the chemicals in their fatty tissue. As the fish move higher up the food chain, they bio-accumulate the toxins to extremely dangerous levels. The bigger the fish, the more contamination.

The toxicity reports found PCB levels in fish that are 47 times what is considered already hazardous to human health. While the PCBs were found in all fish and types of aquatic life from the lake, the Garfish and Drum fish contain the highest levels. The health risk assessment concluded that “if no remedial actions or other means of control are taken for the consumption of fish from the DRCS, then there is a potential for an increased probability of cancer for child, adolescent, and adult recreational users and adult subsistence fishers above the EPA acceptable risk range and a potential for systemic effects.”

Donna Canal warning

With these troubling results, the EPA moved onto the Feasibility Study that evaluates treatment technologies and remedial options based on nine criteria. These nine criteria are divided into three categories called threshold, balancing, and modifying criteria.

Threshold criteria must be met first and they regard the overall protection of human and environmental health as well assuring compliance with federal or state regulations such as the Safe Drinking Water Act. The five primary balancing criteria include items like long-term effectiveness, toxicity reduction, short-term effectiveness, the feasibility of implementation, and cost analysis. After the threshold and balancing criteria are met the options are prioritized.

In the case of the Donna Superfund Site, the EPA offered seven solutions that range from “No Further Action” to the most encompassing which call for the replacement of the siphon and dredging the reservoir and canal monitoring. Four alternatives were retained for further evaluation and include a “Limited Action” focusing on signage, education, continued implementation of the fish ban, and restriction of the land.  Two of the cleanup alternatives are similar but differ in cost. The option to slip line or place a new pipe inside the siphon would have a similar effect in reducing the spread of PCBs in the fish as the alternative to replace the siphon completely, although the latter is truly the most effective in assuring that the source of contamination is eliminated completely.

The remedial options now await the two modifying criteria, which are state and community acceptance. The last two criteria allow for the consideration of state and local community issues, which are extremely important to address before selecting a preferred cleanup alternative and developing a more detailed document called the Proposed Plan. Community input is key in assuring the best option for residents and the local environment and is needed before finalizing the Record of Decision that is a legally binding document outlining the cleanup steps for the site.

It has taken 24 years since the PCB contamination in the Donna Reservoir was detected for the EPA to identify the source and propose remedial solutions. Twenty-four years is a long time but it comes as a relief considering that the siphon owned by the Donna Irrigation District #1 has been leaking toxic chemicals since the early 1900s. That is more than a hundred years of poison, a century of Valley families eating the most contaminated fish recorded in EPA history.

Where the state and local governments have failed community service groups and grassroots organizing has stepped up to protect Valley families, especially those at highest risk of contamination like sustenance fishers and residents of colonias surrounding the reservoir. Groups like A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE), a women’s empowerment organization that works with colonia residents, and Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS), a state fair housing organization, are pushing stakeholders to do more.

Float from ARISE Día del Niño Community Parade

Float from ARISE Día del Niño Community Parade

Advocates believed that the efforts employed by state agencies to educate the public and enforce the fishing ban have not been fruitful as shown by the continued fishing. The DSHS previously reported the problems in their outreach efforts that include basic issues like missing, obscured, or damaged signage. The agency noted that “most of the people we spoke to indicated that they were not aware of the consumption ban.” Members of ARISE and residents of the area are not surprised at the lack of awareness of the problem by the community at large.

They attributed this gap in understanding to the inconsistency in the state and EPA’s previous outreach efforts that occurred sporadically rather than continuously. Additionally, advocates insist that the messaging of the contamination is contradictory at times. They cite the original warning signs that showed a fisherman with many fish in his bucket implying the area has a good catch. For individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) who cannot read, the signs this might be misunderstood and indeed the DSHS found that “a few people indicated that they thought the warning signs were put in place to scare some fishermen off so that only Donna Water District employees could fish.”

A team of health practitioners and professors from Texas A&M University School of Public Health conducted a case study on the risk of exposure to fish contaminated with PCBs at the Donna Superfund Site in communities of mostly Spanish-speaking, low-income residents of colonias in Hidalgo County. Findings of the study suggest that residents lacked an understanding of the PCB exposure risk despite signage and other written forms of communication used. Researchers suggest that additional communication methods need to be explored to develop “reliable, culturally tailored multimedia strategies within this community.”

Bilingual yard signs about Donna Canal

Bilingual yard signs about Donna Canal

Thanks to advocates, the collaboration between community groups and the EPA Environmental Justice department grew. Open discussions regarding the superfund site with other stakeholders began in 2015 and continued in 2016 through quarterly community meetings. The working group consisted of colonia residents, community, advocates, local elected officials, TCEQ staff, and the EPA, who worked to review and edit the material used to inform residents of the contamination. Grassroots organizing and resident advocacy raised community awareness of the toxic fish and brought the issue to local Spanish and English media as well as state news sources like the Texas Tribune. The collaboration made technical information on the health and environmental assessments of the superfund site more accessible by assuring they were provided in English and Spanish. The enforcement of the fishing ban became a priority, as well as thinking of ways to reduce access to the canals and warn individuals about the fish and contamination before they reach the canal. Although not all involved parties were receptive initially to participation including the Donna Irrigation District #1 who failed to attend the quarterly meetings, the working group was a productive attempt to breach the gap in communication and community involvement in developing creative solutions to reduce the consumption of the toxic fish while long-term solutions are developed. The group went as far as creating a multi-platform communications plan and crafting a script for a bilingual public service announcement that would feature local celebrity doctors.

The project, however, never came to fruition.

With the entrance of the new administration and a federal agenda whose priorities are focused on the deconstruction of the environmental agency, the EPA-community participation became limited and the quarterly meetings have not resumed since the Republican administration took office. The drawback in interest from the feds on one of the most toxic sites in the Rio Grande Valley is ironic since protection and safety along the U.S./Mexico border is a priority for the Trump White House. A collaboration that garnered authentic community civic participation and action to address environmental injustices was stunted. Without federal intervention with state agencies, Rio Grande Valley residents are left to look to local elected officials for solutions, many of which they do not have the authority to address the problem or do not care to.

It is surprising that elected official from the cities of Alamo and Donna are not deeply committed to addressing these concerns since their communities use this contaminated site as their source of water. While reports conclude that PCB levels in the water are not a concern to human health, this point is especially troubling after seeing national trends in communities of color like Flint, Michigan, who were lied to and poisoned through their drinking water. As of now the process for deciding the remedial solution for the Donna lake superfund site contamination is still underway but advocates will soon need the public’s participation and comments to make sure the best long-term solution is selected, that is to say, if the program and the federal agency are not defunded and depleted.

In the current political climate where Mexican, Mexican-Americans, Latinxs, and people of color are being subjected to hateful rhetoric that demeans and blames them for being victims of institutionalized oppressions such as environmental racism, it is important to continue resisting. The organizing groups continue to educate residents of the contamination and are looking for resources to fill the need for technical assistance. Their short-term priority is to stop individuals from unsuspectingly poisoning themselves, their families and others which is why they are embarking on yard signage campaign that they believe is appropriate and effective in displaying the dangers and health effects of the pollution. Advocates are informing the community about the next fish removal process and preparing public comments to demand the pollution be cleaned up appropriately.

Flyer for public meeting

The PCB contamination in the Donna Reservoir accounts for lifetimes of illnesses for individuals who unknowingly ingested poisonous fish because the local and state authorities continuously fail to inform and protect their residents. While the EPA process for addressing the Donna Canal Superfund has been bureaucratic, there are concerns that the investment, time and hope placed on remediating this toxic site might be lost at the hands of the Trump administration. The uncertainty is fueled by the anti-environmentalist rhetoric of the administration that contradicts certain recent actions like the newly appointed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt making Superfund site clean up a top priority.

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Josue Ramirez is Co-Director at Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and a staff writer at Neta.