Youth organizing group advances environmental justice project in the Rio Grande Valley

Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley policy analyst
Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director

Above: Josué (far left) and the leaders of the South Tower Power campaign at the City of Alamo Wastewater Treatment Plant.

This summer, I worked with the members of A Resource In Serving Equality (ARISE), one of our partners in the Rio Grande Valley, to hold an intensive environmental justice training program for teenagers from the South Tower colonias. Our goal was to engage the local youth in the governmental process required to address South Tower’s odor nuisances caused by the City of Alamo Wastewater Treatment Plant.

The South Tower area, which includes 15 colonias and is home to more than 3,000 people, is situated around the City of Alamo’s open wastewater outfall. Residents must deal with a constant and powerful stench that causes headaches, stomachaches, breathing trouble and overall discomfort. The community is predominantly low income and Hispanic, and student leaders view the environmental hazard as a clear case of racial and economic inequality.

During the school year, the student group Jóvenes del Valle en Acción continued to bring attention to the problem, advocate for solutions and educate the community regarding the environmental concern and their rights to report the odor problem. The members of the “South Tower Power” campaign canvassed their neighborhoods, spoke to residents about the odor concerns and encouraged them to commit to filling out odor logs documenting the bad smells. South Tower Power has a strong neighborhood presence, as the students presented at several community meetings and have used social media to keep the community informed of their latest actions, activities and interviews.

In addition, the student group has presented at the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court and the City of Alamo’s City Council meetings multiple times to solicit the assistance of their commissioner and city leaders. Student representatives are also a part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Environmental Justice quarterly meetings where local stakeholders, including community members, local non-profits, elected officials, state and federal departments and members of the academic community meet and develop solutions for environmental issues. The next meeting is on January 14, when the youth representatives will discuss their tour of the open sewer lagoon treatment plant with Alamo City Manager Luciano Ozuna Jr (see video below). The student group has also scheduled a tour of a mechanical wastewater treatment plant in the near future, in order to understand the difference and cost benefits of upgrading to a mechanical plant.

The students participating in the South Tower Power campaign are adamant about continuing their work. They want the City of Alamo to address the issue and #stopthesmell. Jóvenes del Valle en Acción is a great example of youth organizing within a larger structure, and of effective collaboration between people of different ages. It has proven to be effective, as the Envrionmental Protection Agency has included this issue as a priority in their Texas environmental justice plan and is committed to working with community partners to find a solution. The students will continue to push for clean and healthy colonias.