Susana Almanza has helped create and lead People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER), a group dedicated to protecting the health of residents of East Austin, Texas, and to promoting environmental and economic justice.
PODER—the acronym is Spanish for “power”—was formed in 1991 to address the social, economic, and environmental impact of high-tech and other industries operating in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of East Austin.
PODER members were concerned that a gasoline tank farm near their homes and schools was endangering their children’s health. The 52-acre tank farm—owned and operated by Exxon, Chevron, Citgo, Texaco, Mobil, and Coastal States—stored 80 percent of the gasoline used by Austin motorists.
PODER members went door to door to document the incidence of chronic illnesses in their community. They educated themselves about the toxicity of the 10 million gallons of gasoline stored in their backyards. Their research uncovered state records detailing a series of unpublicized leaks and spills. The records revealed that although city and county officials were concerned about the health threats posed by the tank farm (including emissions of benzene, a chemical known to cause cancer), they had never told area residents.
Galvanized by their findings, Susana and her PODER colleagues organized block representatives and weekly meetings. They enlisted the help of a neighborhood African-American coalition, started a community-wide letter-writing campaign, and worked through the schools and the PTA to press for meetings with the oil companies and for state tests for contamination.
Publicity surrounding PODER’s “toxic tour” of East Austin prompted the county attorney to launch a special investigation into criminal and civil wrongdoing by the oil companies. Within a year, PODER’s protests led to the closing of the tank farm.
With the storage site still the focus of a multi-million dollar effort to clean up contaminated ground water, PODER has turned its attention to shutting down East Austin’s 37-year-old Holly Street Power Plant and to relocating a Browning Ferris Industries recycling plant.
Susana and her PODER colleagues have asked the city to revise zoning practices that attract heavy industry into residential neighborhoods, and to end tax subsidies to businesses unwilling to commit to environmentally sustainable manufacturing and the hiring and training of workers from the community. They are also working to promote transportation policies that address the needs and improve the mobility of all of Austin’s residents.
Susana Almanza has overcome poverty, prejudice, and segregated schools to face down some of the world’s most powerful multinational corporations. She feels her greatest achievement has been raising her four children to stay on “the path of justice in a world that acts out so many injustices.”