Donna Lake community must unite to end toxic fish crisis

Photo by Douglas Young

For decades, Rio Grande Valley residents have been ingesting cancer-causing chemicals from fish living in the Donna Reservoir and Canal System. While government officials have known about the hazards since 1993, and have now begun a renewed investigation into the source of contamination, they have been slow to take action on commonsense measures that could quickly and drastically reduce the community’s exposure to these toxins.

Instead, the Superfund site commonly known as Donna Lake — which provides drinking and irrigation water for the Donna area — remains a popular spot for local residents to go fishing. Officially, there’s a catch-and-release policy, and taking fish from the lake is prohibited. But subsistence and commercial fishers continue to net contaminated fish every day, taking it home to their families or selling it to their neighbors or at the flea market.

A slew of factors contribute to this public health calamity: lax enforcement of the fish possession ban, unfettered access to the private property the lake sits on and a lack of effective public education on the consequences of consuming and selling fish from Donna Lake.

Long-term solutions to the problem could take years, but there are ways to keep people safe right now.

Since the beginning of the year, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service (TxLIHIS) and community leaders from ARISE have been collaborating with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and Hidalgo County officials to brainstorm solutions to the health hazards at Donna Lake. When we had trouble contacting the Donna Irrigation District, the EPA offered to meet with them privately. When we asked for explanations of the latest studies of the contamination, the EPA brought experts to try to explain the studies to residents.

Now, the EPA is working with us to develop a more effective campaign to spread the word about the dangers of eating the fish. Together we’re creating a bilingual public service announcement for local television, and we're developing other strategies to spread awareness through clinics and networks of promotoras — community members who are trained as outreach specialists, usually with a focus on public health.

The educational outreach will go a long way toward preventing the consumption of fish from Donna Lake. But we also know that a great PSA campaign is not enough. TxLIHIS and ARISE community leaders have been calling for short-term solutions to be implemented while the bureaucratic process of cleaning up Donna Lake creeps along.

The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act — the federal law that implemented the Superfund program in 1980 — differentiates between two types of actions that should be taken to rein in the health hazards wrought by contaminated sites. There are long-term, more permanent solutions called “remedial actions,” which require careful scientific study and a public comment period before being decided upon. While those are in progress, short-term actions called “removal actions” are subject to less regulation and are supposed to be more quickly actionable than the drawn-out process of remediation. But so far, none of our recommendations for these short-term solutions have been implemented.

We were surprised to learn in April that the Donna Irrigation District had installed four “No Fishing Allowed” signs around the lake without input from community leaders. We would have loved to collaborate with the district on the design and placement. We know the signs could have been effective if they’d been installed offshore and if they had conveyed — bilingually — why fishing is prohibited and the health risks of consuming the fish. Instead, within a week of their installation one of the signs was already vandalized, and the others have been largely ignored. Fishing continues at its normal rate.

Another effective short-term measure would be for the Donna Irrigation District to install fencing to block access to the lake entirely — as might be expected for a dangerous toxic site in the middle of a residential area. This would be a much more effective deterrent than an unenforceable fish consumption ban from Texas Parks and Wildlife.

We urge the EPA, Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Donna Irrigation District to create more opportunities for meaningful engagement with those who risk contamination on a daily basis. When community members are included in the decision-making process, those decisions are better, and people are safer.

We’re going to keep doing our part to raise awareness of the contamination and empower local residents to participate in this public process. But for every day that people have access to Donna Lake, Valley residents will continue to be exposed to toxins.

It is well past time for our public officials to put an end to this public safety crisis in our community. We need real, immediate action to keep more of our neighbors from being exposed to contaminated fish.

Josué Ramirez

Co-director, Texas Low Income Housing Information Service

Brooke Lyssy

Community organizer, ARISE