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Watershed report shines a light on racism in tank farm history

Tuesday, June 22, 2021 by Amy Smith

If awards were given out for annual reports, the Austin Watershed Protection Department’s recently released 2020 “State of Our Environment” would be a strong contender for its in-house production of a video documenting the East Austin community’s successful battle against a petroleum storage tank farm in the early 1990s.

Environmental Officer Chris Herrington and Kaela Champlin presented the video to the Environmental Commission at its June 16 meeting. Herrington credited Champlin with doing the heavy lifting on production, with able assistance from the ATXN team, which provides the city’s video and live feeds of City Council and commission meetings.

Titled “Tank Farm: Organizing for Justice,” the storytelling video is told through the voices of people who led the David and Goliath fight to shut down a 52-acre tank farm and force the relocation of oil giants Chevron, Star Enterprise, Citgo, Coastal States, Exxon and Mobil.

The video credits include a special dedication to former County Commissioner Ron Davis, who battled the tank farm as the head of the East Austin Strategy Team, or EAST, an umbrella group of neighborhood associations made up of Black residents. Davis died this year in February.

In 1991, EAST joined forces with a newly formed social justice group called PODER – People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources – led by Susana Almanza, Sylvia Herrera and Antonio Díaz.

The two groups began mobilizing residents and researching the site’s toxic emissions and their correlating health effects on residents living near the tank farm. The Austin American-Statesman flooded the zone with tank farm news coverage, assigning a team of reporters to investigate the site and cover the environmental justice movement taking shape in East Austin.

Environmentalists west of Interstate 35 stood in solidarity with the tank farm opponents, but PODER and EAST leaders insisted that East Austin residents would be the central voice of the conflict.

Almanza, the documentary’s main narrator, recounted how the coalition took its concerns to local and state leaders. City Council at the time, with the exception of Council Member Gus Garcia, was not willing to get into a tangle with Big Oil. “It pretty much fell on deaf ears with the City Council,” Almanza said.

They took the issue to Travis County, where they found allies in former County Judge Bill Aleshire, Commissioner Marcos De Leon and County Attorney Ken Oden.

The commissioners voted to kick in $350,000 toward a civil and criminal investigation of the tank farm. Former Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos and Rep. Glen Maxey also took up arms alongside residents.

The story traces the history of injustices against people of color back to the 1928 master plan, which forced the residents into areas east of I-35 to live alongside a growing number of industrial sites. In 1948, the tank farm arrived in the neighborhood near Springdale and Airport Boulevard. “Due to these racist policies and practices, industries such as the tank farm were able to exist along residential areas,” the Watershed report states.

Not all of the environmental commissioners knew the history of the tank farm. Commissioner Audrey Barrett, who called the video “brilliant,” noted that she was unaware of this historic battle, having moved to Austin less than six years ago. “There are so many younger activists and so many newer people to Austin who also care about the environment who may not know about the tank farm,” she said.

Commissioner Pam Thompson recalled that she was among the environmentalists west of I-35 who rallied against the tank farm alongside East Austin activists.

Chair Linda Guerrero, who grew up in Austin, recounted how community life continued to thrive in spite of the intrusive petroleum tanks. A park adjacent to the toxic site remained a gathering spot for festivals and menudo cook-offs. Produce stands provided residents with fresh fruits and vegetables. “It was like everything went around the tanks, and they were very, very huge and they were obstructive, but the community continued to work around them prior to them being removed,” Guerrero said.

The tank farm site, deemed unsafe for housing because it has been remediated to industrial standards, has now started a new chapter with City Council’s recent unanimous approval for an office complex on the property.

As the Watershed report states, “It is essential that we understand the legacy of environmental injustice and racism that is the history of this location.”

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