Naked City

Edited by Louisa C. Brinsmade, with contributions this week by Andrea Barnett, Robert Bryce, and Amy Smith.


PESTICIDE PARK: Austin city officials met last week with East Austin residents who live near Springdale Park, a 14-acre tract that has been found to be contaminated with unknown quantities of pesticide and lead, to talk about the city's cleanup efforts.

The park, which was purchased by the city in 1981, was used in the 1930s and 1940s as a dump site for ash from Austin's municipal waste incinerator, and is piled high in places with broken glass and small metal shards. Last December, the city erected a fence around the park after five soil samples revealed DDD contamination, a breakdown product of the now-banned pesticide DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane), as well as lead.

About 20 area residents gathered at the Sims Elementary School on Springdale Road, just south of Martin Luther King Blvd., to hear about the city's progress. Chuck Lesniak, with the Environmental and Conservation Services Department (ECSD), told listeners that the city has hired a contractor, EMCON Baker-Shiflett Inc., to take more comprehensive soil and water samples, and expects a report by mid-July. At that point, the city will weigh the health risks and cleanup costs, then decide on a course of action.

Of particular concern to both residents and the city is the possibility of groundwater contamination. Officials emphasize that anyone with a well in the area should contact the city so the water can be tested. Also, Lesniak says, nearly all of the site's rainwater runoff goes into Fort Branch Creek, which runs inside the eastern border of the park. Lesniak says the contractors will have to sample runoff into the creek during a rainstorm, as the creek is normally dry.

Residents' concerns ranged from wanting testing on property surrounding the park - including private houses, a fire station, and the Webbervile Road Baptist Church - to questioning the city's commitment to cleaning up the mess it made 50 years ago.

"I really don't want to hear about finances," says Maggie Chapman, who has lived in her nearby home for 38 years. "We've heard that too often in the black community. I think it's time to spend as much money as you need to satisfy us, because you've let us live here all these years when it's been contaminated."

Lesniak, while assuring residents that their health will be protected, says that the amount of poison found at the site so far is fairly small - "in the parts per billion range." The city is spending $75,000 on this assessment, he says, just to make sure there's no more contamination than has already been found. - A.B.


UNIONS ON THE BORDER: American unions won a significant battle earlier this month when the U.S. decided to pursue a complaint against Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The complaint, the first of its kind to have cabinet-level consideration under NAFTA, alleges that the Mexican government ignored its own labor laws when workers at a Sony factory in Nuevo Laredo were prevented from forming an independent union.

Mexico's labor policy has come under closer scrutiny since NAFTA became law 16 months ago. The complaint involving Sony was the third grievance filed under the treaty. Last fall, the United Electrical Workers and Teamsters filed complaints alleging that workers in Ciudad Juarez were fired after trying to organize independent unions at plants owned by GE and Honeywell.

Since December, when the Mexican government devalued the peso, workers' purchasing power along the border has fallen by nearly half. "The salaries were deplorable before the devaluation," says Susan Mika, director of the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras, one of the four groups that filed the complaint. "Now the situation is even more deplorable, if that's possible."

Mika, a Benedictine nun, says the administration's decision to pursue the complaint is "a historic step." But she says worker rights continue to be ignored in Mexico. Some 2,200 maquiladoras now operate along the US-Mexico border, and about 70% of the workers in the plants are women. Between 80-90% of the workers at the Sony plants in Nuevo Laredo are women. Mika says about 60 workers (almost all of them female) were fired for trying to create an independent union at the plant.

A meeting between U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich and his Mexican counterpart, Santiago Onate, has not been scheduled, but observers expect the consultation on the union issue to occur within a month or so. - R.B.


THE AMERICAN WAY: The Austin City Council is scheduled to vote April 27 on whether to approve American Cab Company's acquisition of Yellow Cab, a company Debbie Richards and her husband, Floyd, bought out of bankruptcy 10 years ago. Trying to run a company in Austin and maintain a marriage and other businesses in Fort Worth was becoming too much of a strain, Richards explains of her decision to sell. She and her husband also own Yellow Cab companies in Fort Worth and Dallas.

Neither Richards nor Charles Johnson, vice president and general manager of American, would disclose the purchase price, but neither one is complaining. The deal will allow Richards to move back home to Fort Worth with a tidy sum. It also will give American the greatest share of the local market, adding 140 Yellow taxi permits to American's existing 139, giving them 67% of the 413 licenses in Austin. American also agreed to hire Yellow's 20 full-time employees.

Of course, not all Yellow Cab drivers are happy, particularly the ones who used to drive for American. Yellow drivers Art Castillo and Alan Smith estimate that at least 30% of Yellow drivers are ex-Americans. They defected to Yellow, they say, because they liked the way Richards ran her company with a human touch, whereas American has more of a corporate bent. American is owned by Yellow Cab Service Corp., Inc., of Houston (not related to Austin's Yellow Cab), which also owns a cab company in Colorado Springs. "Yellow Cab [of Austin] allows the drivers to have more independence," Smith says. "So the move to American is going to be detrimental to drivers who cherish that independence."

Adds Castillo: "It's going to put more drivers on the same dispatch system fighting for the same calls." He says some drivers voiced their concerns about American to a Houston company official, who promised an "attitude adjustment" on the part of American management.

Concerns also have been raised about the potential for an American monopoly in Austin, despite the city's regulatory authority over the industry. American's acquisition of Yellow will leave only two competing cab companies on the road - Roy's Taxi and Austin Cab, which occupy a smaller niche among loyal customers. Neither of these companies, however, have voiced opposition to the acquisition, according to Larry Anderson, chairman of the city's Urban Transportation Commission, which signed off on the proposal April 17 in a 9-0 vote.

Still, Anderson says he's not altogether worry-free over the deal. "I'm worried about the potential for one company to gain all the permits and then reduce the quality of service," he said. "But then, if [Yellow] is going to be sold, it may as well be to a company that's in Austin, that knows the cab business and that runs a good company."

American's Johnson says the acquisition will improve service. The beefed-up fleet, he says, will allow for investment in technologically advanced equipment. As it is, American is the only company in town with computerized dispatching service. Johnson says he wants American to be the first cab company in the United States to install a Global Positioning System in every vehicle. The system would be able to track down any American-owned cab on the road, its direction, its route of travel - even how fast it's going.

"The primary purpose is driver security," Johnson says. But he concedes the new system could raise questions about Big Brother from drivers. "The whole attraction about the cab industry is the driver's ability to be independent," he says. "But the driver won't lose that independence with the new system. If he wants to drive somebody from the Greyhound bus station to El Paso, that's his decision."

As for Richards, what will she miss most about Yellow Cab in Austin? "My drivers," she says without hesitation. "I've got some great drivers." - A.S.


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