Report: Migrant Children Detention Center Could Be Built On Chemical-Riddled Landfill

Area within military base contaminated with lead, arsenic, and more


Alejandro Dávila, Earthjustice National Media Strategist, (202) 797-5251

Today, Earthjustice released a report that highlights how a migrant detention center for unaccompanied children is slated to be placed on top of a former landfill and could have damaging effects on children’s health. The Trump administration has proposed that Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, host approximately 7,500 unaccompanied children; the area is said to be contaminated with lead, arsenic, benzene, PFAS, and other chemicals associated with increased risk of cancer and neurodevelopmental damage.

A migrant detention center for unaccompanied children planned for Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, is slated to be placed on top of Superfund sites.

Findings come some three months after the Hispanic Federation, National Hispanic Medical Association, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, Southwest Environmental Center, GreenLatinos and Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Trump administration to get additional documentation related to the proposed migrant detention center. The Freedom of Information Act lawsuit demands that the Air Force release records concerning environmental hazards at Goodfellow that have the potential to expose children at the base to toxic chemicals via air, water, and soil.

Earthjustice and its clients have for months sought documents that can shed light on the government’s publicly announced plans to build migrant detention centers in Goodfellow and Fort Bliss, both in Texas. The government refuses to comply with FOIA requests, and a lawsuit was filed against the government for its failure to release documents concerning Fort Bliss. Meanwhile, communities are protesting detention sites and caravans of migrant families fleeing violence in Central America and Mexico continue reaching the U.S.–Mexico border for asylum.

Superfund Sites Near
 Proposed Housing at Goodfellow Air Force Base

Proposed Detention Center Housing Area

Carbon Tetrachloride Spill: High levels of volatile organic chemicals

Fuel Storage & Spill Area: Arsenic and high levels of VOCs, including benzene, toluene, chlorobenzene, trichloroethene, 1,1-dichloroethene, methylene chloride, chloroform, and carbon tetrachloride in groundwater

Goodfellow Air Force Base Boundary

Aqueous Film Forming Foam Release Area: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals

Southeast Landfill: Chemicals including lead, arsenic, and other solid wastes in soil and groundwater

Firing Range: Lead-contaminated soil

Restricted Area

Goodfellow Air Force Base Boundary

The review of publicly available environmental records shows that lead, a potent neurotoxin that can permanently damage children, has been detected near the proposed site at levels unacceptable for housing, in the soil and groundwater close to a former arms range, the landfill and a fuel storage area. Other contaminants detected at the site include volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which contaminate the air and threaten human health through vapor intrusion.

Children have less developed natural defenses, including a more permeable blood-brain barrier, less effective filtration in nasal passages, highly permeable skin, and vital organ systems that are still developing.

Key findings in the report:

  • Lead in the area was previously found at levels 27 times higher than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for lead in soil for play areas.
  • Lead in groundwater exceeds U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safety limit by over 20 percent.
  • The nearby fuel storage facility shows about a dozen chemicals associated with liver problems, increased risk of cancer and development delays in children.
  • Nine locations near the site exhibit PFAS contamination. PFAS is a group of toxic chemicals that can hamper thyroid and immunological system function and increase one’s risk of cancer.
  • Vapor intrusion in the area is worrisome as vapors (or gases) from the dozens of chemicals can penetrate buildings through cracks in the foundation and openings for utility lines. These contaminants pose threats to indoor air quality.
  • Before housing for children is built at the Air Force Base, soil may have to be removed, groundwater tested, waste sites thoroughly removed or covered, and the commercial/industrial restrictions will need to be lifted to allow residential housing for children.

Read the report:

Download the Toxic Cages report, or view it below:

Toxic Cages: Toxic Contaminants At Goodfellow Air Force Base Put Children’s Health At Risk (PDF)
Toxic Cages: Toxic Contaminants At Goodfellow Air Force Base Put Children’s Health At Risk (Text)

“Public records so show the migrant children’s housing site proposed for Goodfellow will be built atop a former landfill, in an area riddled with lead, benzene, and other chemicals particularly hazardous to children,” said Lisa Evans, Earthjustice attorney. “This is outrageous. We urge the government to immediately turn over all documents related to this immoral plan so the public can get to the bottom of this.”

VOCs found in the area include benzene, arsenic, and tetrachloroethylene at extremely high levels, making the area unsuitable for housing. Exposure to these vapors can cause nausea, headaches, trouble breathing, difficulty concentrating, and even death. Long-term exposure — even low levels — can cause damage to the nervous system, kidney, and liver.

“The Trump administration clearly cannot be trusted with the health and safety of vulnerable migrant children,” said Laura M. Esquivel, director of National Advocacy for Hispanic Federation, the lead plaintiffs in the FOIA case. “Make no mistake; if plans go forward for these centers, the Trump administration is responsible for yet another cruel, misguided, and intentional action that will compound the irreparable damage to the physical and mental wellbeing of thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents at the border.

“Families seeking solace from violence and poverty should be embraced,” said Elena Rios, MD, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. “Instead, this government seems keen on building detention centers on contaminated sites, and eager to jail children who just want peace and safety.”

“As a farmworker women’s organization, we know the permanent and detrimental effects that chemicals, such as pesticides, have in the lives of our migrant and campesina communities,” said Mily Treviño with Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. “We won’t stand idly as vulnerable children are put in cages, let alone in cages on top of landfills at polluted military bases.”

“The public has a right to know where and how will innocent children be detained,” said David Baake, Southwest Environmental Center attorney. “We urge the government to reveal whatever is hiding and face the public.”

“This bigoted administration has shown time and time again that it has no regard for the rule of law and the safety of the most vulnerable,” said Hector Sanchez from the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “But we stand strong for our communities and will not stop defending migrant families that need support and compassion.”

“The Trump administration chooses secrecy, despite the public’s right to know,” said Mark Magaña, president and CEO of GreenLatinos. “Now we must compel the government to respond to our queries and be accountable for the sake of our communities and migrant families.”


A woman who identified herself as Jennifer sits with her son Jaydan at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas.
A woman who identified herself as Jennifer sits with her son Jaydan at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Tex., in 2018. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

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