One hundred years of poison: Why toxic fish still threaten Rio Grande Valley residents

Josué Ramírez, Texas Housers Rio Grande Valley director

This article originally ran on Neta, a bilingual multimedia platform based in the Rio Grande Valley where I am a staff content creator, and is reprinted here with permission and some changes. 

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 more than 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 – known locally as Donna Lake – became a popular source of fishing for residents from all around the Rio Grande Valley, who unknowingly put themselves and their families at risk by eating some of the most contaminated fish in the country.

Image from Texas Department of State Health Services

In 1991, a routine environmental review identified a cluster of neural tube defects in infants in the region. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted an exposure study with nine families in Hidalgo and Cameron Counties, sampling fish filets from one of the families who reportedly fished in the Donna Canal system. The study found 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 causing cancer, 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.

After 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 health.” DSHS deemed the site a public health hazard, and in 1994 went as far as placing a ban on fish possession that prohibits and fines individuals $500 for taking fish from the canal. DSHS placed signs along the canal to inform individuals of the fishing ban. They also conducted outreach to nearby communities, passing out pamphlets and holding local information sessions in hopes of reducing fishing and the consumption of contaminated fish. The state agency also reached out to local restaurants to warn them of not buying fish from unlicensed vendors because of potential dangers to individual’s health.

While the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted further analyses of fish, sediment and water samples, locals continued to access the reservoir. Numerous studies later, and 11 years after the discovery of PCBs, the source of the contamination was narrowed, and the EPA declared the Donna Reservoir and Canal as part of the Superfund National Priorities List in 2008. Throughout this time, and still today, the reservoir has remained open and accessible for fishing, even though it is the private property of the Donna Irrigation District #1.

Since the Superfund designation, which entitles it to a source of federal money set aside to clean up hazardous sites, Donna Lake has undergone a long process of remediation. In 2008 the EPA and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service performed a “fish kill” via electroshock as a short-term solution, and also implemented a fish removal in 2012. But the fish inevitably returned, and while the federal remedial investigation into the nature and extent of contamination at a site continued, few actions were taken to actually stop people from fishing.

In March 2016, seven years after Donna Lake was categorized as a Superfund site, the EPA released their Ecological and Human Health Risk assessments. The reports 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 siphon’s materials contain PCBs that are released as water moves through the pipe. The chemicals then settle in the water and sediment, and are consumed by aquatic life that retains PCBs 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 greater the contamination.

The toxicity reports found PCB levels in fish that are 47 times what is considered hazardous to human health. The health risk assessment concluded that “if no remedial actions or other means of control are taken for the consumption of fish from the [reservoir and canal], 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.”

With these troubling results, the EPA moved on to a Feasibility Study to evaluate 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, regarding the overall protection of human and environmental health as well assuring compliance with federal or state regulations such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, must be met first. The five primary balancing criteria are 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 then prioritized.

The EPA offered seven solutions for the Donna Superfund site, ranging 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, including 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 replacing the siphon completely, although replacement is truly the most effective in eliminating the source of contamination.

The remedial options now await the two modifying criteria, state and community acceptance. This 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 to finding the best option for residents and the local environment, and is needed before finalizing the legally binding document that will outline the cleanup steps for the site.

It’s taken 24 years since PCB contamination was detected for the EPA to identify the source and propose remedial solutions. Twenty-four years is a long time – but it still 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 one hundred years of poison, a century of Valley families eating the most contaminated fish recorded in EPA history.

Where government has 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 ours, in partnership with A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE), a women’s empowerment organization that works with colonia residents, are pushing stakeholders to do more.

We believe that the efforts employed by state agencies to educate the public and enforce the fishing ban have not been fruitful, as proven by the continued fishing. The DSHS previously reported problems in their outreach efforts including 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 that the surrounding community lacks awareness of the problem. They attribute this gap in understanding to the inconsistency in the state and EPA’s previous sporadic outreach efforts. Advocates have found the messaging around the contamination to be contradictory at times – the original warning signs showed a man with a bucket full of fish, implying that the area has a good catch. For individuals with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) who cannot read, the signs these signs could easily be misunderstood. 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 PCB-contaminated fish in communities of mostly Spanish-speaking, low income residents of Hidalgo County colonias. Their findings suggest that residents lack an understanding of their risk of PCB exposure despite signage and other written forms of outreach. The study found that additional communication methods are needed to develop “reliable, culturally tailored multimedia strategies within this community.”

Thanks to advocates, the collaboration between community groups and the EPA Environmental Justice department grew. Open discussions around the Superfund site began in 2015 and continued in 2016 through quarterly community meetings. The working group consisted of colonia residents, community, advocates, local elected officials, and staff from the TCEQ and EPA (and myself), who worked to review and edit the material used to inform residents of the contamination. Grassroots organizing and resident advocacy raised community awareness and brought the issue to local English- and Spanish-language media as well as state news sources such as the Texas Tribune.

The collaboration made technical information on health and environmental assessments more accessible by assuring they were provided in English and Spanish. The enforcement of the fishing ban became a priority, as well as reducing access to the canals and warning individuals about the fish and contamination before they reach the site. Although not all of the involved parties were receptive – including the Donna Irrigation District #1, which did not send representatives to the quarterly meetings – the working group was a productive attempt to breach gaps and develop creative solutions to reduce the consumption of the toxic fish while long-term solutions are planned. We 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 arrival of the new administration and a federal agenda that prioritizes the deconstruction of the EPA, community participation became limited. The quarterly meetings have not been held since President Trump took office. This drawback in interest from the federal government, on one of the most toxic sites in Texas, is ironic given that safety along the U.S.–Mexico border is a priority for the Trump administration. Yet a collaborative public safety effort with authentic community civic participation and action steps has been stunted.

Without federal intervention, Rio Grande Valley residents must look to local elected officials for solutions, even though many do not have the authority to address the problem or do not care to. It’s surprising that elected officials from the cities of Alamo and Donna are not more deeply committed to addressing these concerns, since their communities use the contaminated site as their source of water. While Donna Lake studies conclude that PCB levels in the water are not a concern to human health, the contamination is troubling in the wake of national attention on communities of color such as Flint, Michigan, where residents were lied to and poisoned through their drinking water.

As of now, the decision-making process on the remedial solution for the Donna Superfund site is ongoing. But advocates will soon need the public’s participation and comments to make sure the best long-term solution is selected – that is, if the program and the federal agency are not depleted or defunded.

In the current political climate, where Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Latinxs and people of color are subjected to hateful rhetoric that demeans and blames them for being victims of institutionalized oppressions such as environmental racism, it is vital that we continue to resist. 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 unwittingly poisoning themselves, their families and others. A new campaign will put up warning signage in nearby residents’ yards, to display the dangers of the pollution where more locals will notice. We’re informing the community about the next fish removal process, and preparing public comments to demand the pollution be cleaned up appropriately.

New EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said that the cleanup of Superfund sites is a top priority, and we’re urging him to follow through on that promise at Donna Lake. While the EPA process around the site has been bureaucratic and taken too long, we cannot lose the investment, time and hope placed on remediating the toxins due to federal budget cuts or changing policies. The PCB contamination in Donna Lake accounts for lifetimes of illnesses for individuals who ingested poison because the authorities keep failing to inform and protect their people.

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