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State, Feds Know Valley Residents Have Eaten Toxic Fish for Decades

For more than two decades, federal and state health officials have known that residents of a poor community in the Rio Grande Valley are eating fish laced with unsafe levels of toxic chemicals, but they haven't found a way to stop it.

One of four warning signs posted next to polluted Donna Lake.

DONNA — When Emma Quintero moved into her modest, bright blue house eight years ago, she'd watch neighbors pass by on their way to fish the murky waters of two sprawling reservoirs and irrigation canals that reach into the Rio Grande Valley like tentacles, delivering water to fields of citrus and vegetables.

She and her husband ate fish from the lakes themselves at a local restaurant. It wasn’t until about a year after the Quinteros moved in that an official with the state health department knocked on their door and handed her a flyer with a dire warning: Fish from the Donna Reservoir and Canal System are contaminated with dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals and aren't safe to eat.

“I couldn’t sleep that night,” Quintero, 55, said in Spanish recently while sitting at her kitchen table. “It scared me, and since then I want nothing to do with fish.”

For 23 years, federal environmental regulators and state health officials have known the fish in the Donna Reservoir and Canal System pose major health risks to those who consume them. The lakes have been granted Superfund status — a designation given to the country’s most hazardous sites — as officials try to figure out how to clean them up.

Though the Donna system supplies drinking water for two nearby small cities, environmental researchers have found the water itself to be safe. The problem is the fish, which are somehow ingesting cancer-causing chemicals and retaining them in their fat tissue. For decades, officials have been stumped over the source of the chemicals.

It's been illegal to fish in the lake since before the Superfund designation, and officials have launched an extensive educational campaign to make sure people know of the danger.

But the lake remains a popular fishing spot, both for recreational fishers and those looking to provide for their families. Its miles of shoreline are an open invitation for poor families and ambitious entrepreneurs who see the fish as cheap food or a way to make a quick buck. Many are still unaware of the risks. And a permanent fix is likely years away.

For all that’s been done in this small, mostly Hispanic community, the narrative surrounding Donna lake tells a familiar story in Texas. It's one of poor people of color exposed for decades to dangerous environmental contaminants with solutions largely out of grasp.

“It’s not so much that it’s an injustice, but how could they let it go on this long?” Quintero said.

Clear danger

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first detected dangerous chemicals in the Donna Reservoir's fish in 1993 as part of an investigation into a disproportionate number of infants in the area born with neural tube defects, or birth defects of the brain and spine. It appears no definitive connection was made between the birth defects and eating the fish. But the fish were clearly dangerous.

Testing then showed the fish had high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — a group of chemical compounds once used in electrical and industrial equipment that have since been banned due to health concerns. In fact, the concentration of PCBs discovered in the Donna fish were the highest ever recorded in fish, according to health officials. PCBs, which are stored in the fat of the fish, are known to cause liver and immune system problems. Exposure to PCBs by eating contaminated fish also increases the risk of cancer.

The PCB levels are high enough to be of concern not just for people who eat the fish regularly — 208 meals a year is what the EPA calls a subsistence consumer — but also for recreational fishers.  

Residents eating the fish as little as 42 times a year are at risk of ingesting levels of chemicals above the acceptable range for cancer risks, and more than eight times above the acceptable threshold for non-carcinogenic hazards. 

In 1994, the state enacted a fish possession ban for the reservoir — a measure reserved for areas that represent the highest health risks. (The possession ban in Donna is currently the only active ban of its type in the state.) Under the ban, residents caught fishing face misdemeanor fines of a few hundred dollars. Two decades later, the fines have done little to deter people from fishing in the easily accessible reservoir and canals, and even selling the fish to their neighbors.

With researchers unable to determine the source of the PCBs, the EPA in March 2008 listed the reservoir on its national priorities list, setting into motion several unsuccessful attempts to remove the fish from the lake.

The EPA has attempted to physically remove the fish or kill them off by electroshocking the water several times between 2008 and 2012. But the large fish, including species of carp, catfish and largemouth bass, remain. 

"As long as people continue to eat contaminated fish from this site, the site will continue to pose a public health hazard," state health officials wrote in their 2010 health assessment. Those hazards include increased probability of cancer, especially among those who regularly consume the fish.

It appears there have been no comprehensive studies to find out what effect 23 years of consumption have had on the health of residents who have consumed the fish since the PCBs were discovered.

ARISE community leader Emma Quintero (l) discusses nearby polluted Donna Lake with community organizer Brooke Lyssy.
ARISE community leader Emma Quintero (l) discusses nearby polluted Donna Lake with community organizer Brooke Lyssy.

Concerns about health risks for mothers and children sound the loudest alarm for state health officials who have said that highly contaminated fish can cause slow mental development among children because a woman can pass the chemicals onto their child while pregnant or while breastfeeding.

Amid all of these concerns, government officials have been largely unsuccessful in preventing residents from both nearby areas and the rest of the Rio Grande Valley from fishing and consuming their catch. Leaving residents to continue eating the fish in light of those failed attempts is something local organizers, environmental attorneys and residents say is categorically unacceptable.

“At what point does the EPA and the state of Texas act to protect people when they know people are being harmed and exposed to cancer?” asked John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, a nonprofit that works on housing and community development problems. “This in my mind is the definition of environmental racism.”

Little enforcement

Efforts to keep people from catching and consuming the fish are mired in a “cascade of problems,” Henneberger said.

For one, the fishing ban appears to be largely ineffective, officials acknowledge. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is responsible for enforcing the ban, but the department only has one game warden in charge of inspecting the approximately 400-acre reservoir system but has no set patrol schedule, according to a department spokesman Tom Harvey.

There have been some cases in which locals have been issued fines, but few fines have been issued in “recent years,” Harvey said. The department did not provide a detailed list of fines levied on residents since the ban took effect.

The EPA, which did not respond to requests for comment, in the past has put up signs around the lake alerting residents about the risks associated with eating the fish, but the signs are regularly vandalized or taken down. At one point, a resident living near the reservoir took a plywood sign and used it to cover the windows of his home during a heavy storm, one resident said.

Last week, there appeared to be no EPA-issued signs along the reservoir. The irrigation district that owns the reservoir recently put up a handful of signs with the words “NO FISHING ALLOWED” outlined in bright red. At least one of those signs had been vandalized just four days later.

“There is no excuse that they’re allowing people to eat the fish,” said Amy Johnson, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid who is working with local activists. “It’s very disrespectful to the community that they are letting people poison themselves.”

Failed efforts to prevent fishing have pushed some in the community to begin their own education campaigns. But their warnings to neighbors are usually disregarded, said Sandra Carrillo, one resident who is working with community activists to educate locals about the fish.

She likens it to telling her kids that eating candy is bad for their teeth. They don’t believe it until a doctor tells them, Carrillo said.

“We need someone with authority” to reaffirm what community groups are saying, she added. “If they know the fish are contaminated, it’s unjust for them to allow people to eat the fish.”

Dead fish pile up along one of the canals that make up the Donna Reservoir and Canal System — a Superfund site in the Rio Grande Valley. The fish in the reservoir have been found to be contaminated, but the reservoir remains a popular fishing spot among locals.
Dead fish pile up along one of the canals that make up the Donna Reservoir and Canal System — a Superfund site in the Rio Grande Valley. The fish in the reservoir have been found to be contaminated, but the reservoir remains a popular fishing spot among locals.

The Texas Department of State Health Services — which through its own health assessment in 2010 determined the fish presented grave public health problems — has been relatively active in the community. Health educators with the department regularly give presentations to organizations, such as the local rotary club and parent teacher associations, explaining the health risks associated with the fish in the Donna Reservoir. During those trips, they also drive the length of the canal system to warn people fishing or swimming about the fish.

They’ve dropped off flyers at local restaurants and visited health clinics. In August, they attended a back-to-school fair to hand out flyers. But even through those efforts they’ve run into two major hurdles.

Recreational fishers who visit the reservoir aren’t limited to people living nearby. Some travel from other areas of the Rio Grande Valley to fish in the lake. The transient nature of colonia residents also complicates matters.

Health department officials have gone to door-to-door alerting locals about the contaminated fish almost every year since 2009, handing out thousands of educational materials. But new families move into the area regularly.

“We can go out there and six months later and a year later, there’s completely new families,” said Tina Walker, a health educator for the Department of State Health Services. “It’s kind of a never-ending cycle.”

And all of this has done little to appease residents who have lived in the area for years and can’t afford to pick up and leave their dilapidated homes despite their health concerns.

Delia Mendoza had no idea the fish were contaminated when she moved into the area with her husband and two children seven years ago. The couple allowed their children to play near one of the reservoir system’s canals that’s situated just a few feet from her front porch, but that quickly changed as soon as they found out about the contaminated fish.

“I realized it wasn’t a safe place for children,” Mendoza said, looking over to the murky, brown water in the canal. “So many people come and fish here, and I imagine they must think like everyone else that what we’re saying isn’t true.”

Asked if she would’ve moved there knowing the canal was full of contaminated fish, her answer is short: “No."

No known fix

A solution to ridding the Donna Reservoir of contaminated fish is still far off.

For more than 20 years, environmental regulators were unsure of the source of the PCBs, despite sending in divers on multiple occasions. A remedial investigation report completed in March by the EPA indicates the toxins could be coming from an old siphon that was constructed around 1928 to feed water into the reservoir. PCBs from the siphon might be getting into the sediment, which the fish later ingest.

But the EPA is still months away from formally making that announcement, which is needed to determine a clean-up plan and prepare for the next steps in the remediation process, such as construction to replace the siphon. The EPA will also have to find a solution to removing the remaining contaminated fish.

After almost a decade of looking for a solution, it’s a process that could still take several years. All the while, locals continue eating the contaminated fish.

The long timeline makes it even more crucial that environment and health officials enact effective temporary measures to keep locals from eating the poisoned fish, said Kelly Haragan, director the of environmental law clinic at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I do think there’s a delay that isn’t reasonable,” Haragan said. “If this was in a site where people had a lot of political clout and were calling their representatives to get involved in the process, I question whether there would have been that long delay. I can only imagine if this was in Plano, would it be all over the media?”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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