Environmental and health advocates want more information about the Trump administration’s plans to house detained immigrants, including children, at two Texas military posts with a history of toxic contamination.
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed Wednesday morning by the nonprofit legal group Earthjustice is asking the government for details about plans to keep immigrants at Fort Bliss in El Paso and Goodfellow Air Force Bases in San Angelo.
Fort Bliss is a source of particular concern for advocates — the area is listed as a Superfund, meaning that areas have been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a priority for cleanup due to the dangers they pose to human health and the environment. At Goodfellow, tents meant to house people will be constructed directly over a former firing range, not far from an uncapped landfill.
“These waste sites have the potential to cause dangerous human exposure to toxic chemicals via air, water and soil to migrants housed in tent encampments and to workers constructing the detention camps,” the FOIA request reads.
“Because the Trump Administration plans to construct and house immigrant children and families on a greatly expedited schedule,” it continues, “timely receipt of the following information is required to inform the public of potential adverse impacts and to ensure the safety of those detained and those constructing the encampments.”
In addition to seeking information about where specifically immigrants will be held at Fort Bliss and Goodfellow, the FOIA is seeking data about 10 different polluted sites on the bases. The groups have also probed other potential bases under consideration for housing detained persons.
The request has been filed on behalf of health, labor, and environmental organizations including Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (Alianza), GreenLatinos, and the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC). Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice who specializes in hazardous waste law, told ThinkProgress that advocates are unlikely to learn anything from the Department of Defense (DoD) without FOIA requests, prompting Earthjustice’s action on Wednesday.
“The public has a right to know what pollutants are in the base and where will innocent children be detained,” said David Baake, an attorney with SWEC, in a statement accompanying the FOIA announcement. “The surrounding community steadfastly opposes the Family Detention Policy, and should not be forced to contribute to suffering by hosting new detention centers in their backyard.”
Earthjustice has requested a response to the FOIA within 10 days given the expedited processing used by the group. Other organizations represented by Earthjustice in the request include the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), the National Hispanic Medical Association (NHMA), and the Hispanic Federation (HF).
Evans, the attorney, said Earthjustice is unclear what the FOIA will unearth at this stage, but that the organization is concerned about the proximity of immigrants to deadly toxins. Hazardous chemicals are scattered around Fort Bliss. There are also concerns that polyfluorinated compounds, or PFAS, could be in the area. In 2017, water testing at Fort Bliss found that certain sites had chromium and radiological contaminants.
Goodfellow, meanwhile, contains remediated sites, which are also a source of concern. Evans said it is not uncommon for sites that have been cleaned to require additional attention following remediation, after they are found to still pose a health and environmental hazard.
She pointed to an infamous 2005 housing development constructed at Fort Wainwright in Alaska, which has historically been Superfund-listed. Construction ultimately paused after workers reported strange odors and residue; cleanup of residual contaminants ultimately cost the military upwards of $15 million.
Immigrants housed at Goodfellow will seemingly be situated directly above a remediated area. Their accommodations are likely to mirror the same large tents previously used by the government to house detained immigrants, which offer minimal protection from outside elements.
At both Fort Bliss and Goodfellow, detained people — including very young children — could be in perilous proximity to toxins, posing an extreme health hazard.
“Lead-contaminated soil or lead dust could be a huge danger for young children, and lead (as well as arsenic and mercury) are often found on Superfund sites,” Evans said.
“Thus depending on the route of exposure, the substance involved, and the sensitivity of the victim, immigrants on Superfund sites could suffer from anything from asthma, to neurological damage, to organ damage, to cancer,” she explained. “It really depends on the chemical and extent of exposure.”
The Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies have been the source of extreme debate. The policy of separating children from their families met with national outrage several months ago, resulting in a pause on the practice. But immigrants are still being mass-detained, part of policies that date back through numerous Republican and Democratic administrations.
They’ve also been held at Superfund sites before now — at least one detention center, based in Tacoma, Washington, has held as many as nearly 1,500 detainees dating back to the Obama and Bush administrations.
Evans said legal protections are few and far between when it comes to protecting detained immigrants from hazards like Superfund sites. But she said demands for accountability from the public will be critical going forward.
“It’s important that this be a public process,” she said. “These plans should not be developed in secrecy. The more eyes that are on this, the more likelihood that the families will be protected.”