Andrea Guzman is a senior at Donna High School and an advocate for environmental justice on behalf of her South Tower neighborhood. She, like other high school seniors, is feeling a mix of anticipation and relief as her school days fly by and she enjoys the last of many teenage experiences.
But something that Andrea wishes she would experience for the last time is the foul odor of wastewater that plagues her neighborhood. Andrea and her fellow advocates and residents are one step closer to fulfilling that wish: Last week, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality granted residents of the South Tower neighborhood a contested hearing to settle whether the city of Alamo can continue operating the open lagoon sewer treatment plant that produces an unbearable smell.
“It smells really bad all the time, like sewage,” Guzman said. “The kids don’t want to play outside and sometimes their parents won’t let them out because they think the smell will get them sick.”
She has lived in the Colonia South Tower Estates outside of the city of Alamo her entire life. There, she participates in the summer youth program directed by the local community group A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE). Two years ago Guzman and her peers with the assistance of ARISE and Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS) started a youth group called Jóvenes del Valle en Acción. The group’s focus was a grassroots environmental justice campaign they named South Tower Power whose main goal was to “Stop the Smell.”
“We did not want children to waste their summers inside and more importantly we are tired of living with the smell of sewage every day, so we decided to do something about it,” Guzman said.
The high school students began the community service project in an effort to figure out what was causing the stench in their neighborhood. They traced the foul smell to an open sewage outfall belonging to the city of Alamo’s malfunctioning wastewater treatment plant. The students realized the 60-year-old system was responsible for the smell. To make matters worse, they discovered that it did not serve their community. Instead, it managed the waste of the city of Alamo, which does not include their neighborhood.
In a comment regarding the odor the City Manager of Alamo, Luciano Ozuna Jr, mentions that the city “controls the odor as much as they can” but admitted “it is an open lagoon sewer treatment plant. It’s not a mechanical plant the way other cities have.”
“Whenever it starts to smell it is really unpleasant,” Abril Cossino, one of the founding members of the group, described. Her home in South Tower is directly in front of the outfall. “Your nose just starts to cringe a little…like right here,” she says as she pinches the bridge of her nose. “This is where it usually starts to burn a little when the smell is really, really bad.”
Through their research, the South Tower Power youth learned about the wastewater treatment plant history and about different processes used to clean water. They visited a local mechanical plant to better understand and advocate possible solutions. As their training progressed, the students began seeing the problem as an example of environmental injustice, seeing that low-income immigrant communities of color were being exposed to environmental issues disproportionately.
“Our campaign, South Tower Power, is mainly trying to change the problem with the wastewater smell here but we are also trying to help others,” volunteer Lizbeth Ramos, who started the campaign her junior year in high school and is now attending the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, explained.
For the past two-and-a-half years, Lizbeth and her peers have used a three-pronged approach for the campaign: General Awareness Raising, Community Education and Outreach and Enforcement.
After identifying the issue and the state agencies responsible for environmental health hazards, the students learned about the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) process for filing odor complaints and about residents’ right to clean air.
Students and ARISE organizers mobilized to educate the community about environmental justice and what they could do to request an air investigation when the odor was unbearable. They did so through a series of community meetings and outreach events, including neighborhood walks early Saturday mornings to educate the residents.
“When we started to inform the community, they were as indignant as we were about the situation,” said Cossino as she describes her neighbors’ response to the youth-led canvassing.
After the several events, more community members became involved. The residents of South Tower began reporting the smell and a separate group called Aire Limpio Para South Tower was created and sought legal representation from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
As the community mobilized the South Tower Power campaign members were cognizant that more community awareness was needed to make the matter become a priority. The students developed a communication strategy that included a stronger social media presence through Facebook and an emphasis on interviews and editorials in the local news.
The youth group quickly garnered not only local media attention but also attention from national environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club.
Ramos described her nervousness when being interviewed and speaking to public officials for the first time: “At first I was nervous that they were going to say ‘oh, they’re just kids.’” She believes people took them more seriously because they were knowledgeable about the information they presented and were persistent.
Their determination to #stopthesmell was successful as the odor complaints warranted official TCEQ investigations. On Dec. 12, 2015, TCEQ records show that “the Region confirmed nuisance level odors emitted from the WWTF at four observation points,” and again a week later on Dec. 23 when “investigators from the Region again confirmed nuisance levels of odors emitted from the facility.”
Since then, the City of Alamo has been forced to invest thousands of dollars for improvements to their aerator systems, which previously ran on solar power. Additionally, and thanks to the collaboration between local stakeholders, state, and federal agencies, the city of Alamo was awarded a $1 million loan to begin planning a mechanical wastewater plant.
This is not the first time, however, that the City of Alamo has attempted to address the wastewater lagoon issue.
In 2008 and 2012, the city made plans for a plant but never fully committed funds to carry them out. In an op-ed published in The Monitor, Charles Whitaker, ex-Alamo Economic Development Board Chairman, mentions the frustration in 2008 and 2009 when the AEDC proposed the solutions to the then-city manager and mayor and were told “to forget the idea and stop any work on the options.”
“This system is unhealthy and smelly,” Whitaker recalled. “The citizens of South Tower Road deserve more from the City of Alamo.”
The youth also believe they deserve better, which is why they are unrelenting in placing enforcement pressure on the city. After visiting their local state representatives and requesting a public hearing on the city of Alamo’s five-year permit renewal, the students were ready to speak out. The public meeting held in 2016 brought down TCEQ board members to hear the community’s issues.
This meeting yielded a contested hearing last week, which is a legal proceeding similar to a civil trial in state district court. The residents will be represented in a hearing, which can potentially result in a mutually agreeable settlement through mediation with the City of Alamo.
This is a step in the right direction for the South Tower Campaign, which will persist in the efforts and is recruiting more members among friends and classmates in their neighborhoods. They continue to ask residents to report odors to the TCEQ. Now that the city of Alamo is in the planning stages of the mechanical wastewater plant, the youth group is demanding a place at the table in order to assure the best community solutions are developed.
“We are just really proud that we as teenagers embarked on this journey,” Cossino said. “Overall, our community started to look up to us,” she continued with a smile beginning to form. “Now, they see the blur of orange and they know it’s time for change to come in.”