Cleaning up Tucson's South Side water pollution part of Grijalva enviro bill
Local leaders call for support for Environmental Justice for All Act to clean up PFAS & TCE contamination
Local leaders in Southern Arizona came together Wednesday to throw their support behind the Environmental Justice for All Act, a congressional bill that aims to treat pollution in communities of color as a civil rights violation and create local funding for environmental cleanup.
U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Tucson Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced the bill last March, but said he’s spent his political career undoing damage in Tucson’s low-income and Latino communities caused by water contaminants like trichloroethylene and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also called TCE and PFAS.
Water pollution has threatened area residents for years and cleaning it up has been a priority for local, state and federal representatives of Southern Arizona. High levels of PFAS, a long-lasting chemical used in plastics, coating and firefighting foams, polluted a regional groundwater aquifer near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base several years ago that was the main source of drinking water for more than 65,000 people. Similar incidents have affected Tucson’s mostly Latino South Side in the past.
The Environmental Justice for All bill, which Grijalva and other members of Congress are touting on a national tour of cities like New York and Detroit, is aimed at funding remediation and cleanup efforts across the countryu, and creating more government accountability. It would also create a protected class for "frontline communities," or those most impacted by environmental hazards because of their economic and geographic vulnerabilities.
“The TCE contamination that many of us ignored for generations on the South Side of town was a prevalent part of my political upbringing in this community,” Grijalva said. “At the time, we didn’t have a definition for environmental justice, but all we knew was the impacted communities were predominantly working class and poor and predominantly communities of color.”
Grijalva said that he doesn't want to see communities of color to continue to be treated "a dumping ground." Instead, the measure would invest in equity at the local level, create community engagement and make sure federal agencies hear public redresses and petitions against government injustices or inactions. "Environmental issues need components of equity and justice," he said.
Local government leaders from Pima County, Tucson and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe showed up to support Grijalva at a press conference on Wednesday. Several spoke about the impact that the bill would have on the South Side in repairing damage from water, air and land contamination, including from PFAS and TCE.
They included Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz; Dr. Francisco Garcia, the chief medical officer for Pima County; Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, a member of the county board and the congressman’s daughter; as well as Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio and Herminia Frias, a Yaqui councilwoman.
Romero spoke about the benefit for “frontline communities” such as people of color, with disabilities or with children, the elderly and low-income, Indigenous or fossil fuel-dependent communities.
“(This bill) really looks at the disparate effect contamination like PFAS has had on frontline communities including our low-income and BIPOC communities,” she told TucsonSentinel.com, referring to Black, Indigenous and People of Color as BIPOC. “For the city of Tucson to see the Environmental Justice for All bill pass is super important,” as it seeks to require community engagement from the federal government and create continuous funding for cleanup efforts.
Garcia, who’s Pima County’s top medical expert, also saw potential in the requirements the bill has at the federal level, saying “the legislation is so important because it holds the federal regulatory agencies, like the (Environmental Protection Agency) to account.” It also gives updated standards for how much PFAS is safe, he said, which is an important step not already in place.
“I grew up right here, at the very heart of the TCE plume right when it was happening,” Garcia said, referring to notable contamination in 1987 that affected a large area of the South Side. “I always wondered if the bad outcome that (neighbors) had was related to the fact that we grew up drinking the same water.”
Associating illness with contamination is hard, Garcia said, but the bill offers a way to make it easier by requiring federal agencies to document health risks in areas to determine what policies have had a negative impact. The bill would also take money from the Department of Defense to solve contamination caused in Air Force bases and other military facilities.
A single round of funding for PFAS cleanup in Tucson will also come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in the winter, but Romero said Tucson needs the continuous funding that’s part of Grijalva’s bill.
There’s a “painful, painful history of water contamination” in Tucson, the mayor said, and even though the city is “working fast and furiously to protect communities, even shutting down wells,” there’s already a broken trust between the people and their local government because of the contamination.
Councilwoman Santa Cruz, whose Ward 1 boundaries reach the South Side, also talked on this point, saying she and fellow South Side Councilman Richard Fimbres have encountered “a lot of pain and a lot of distrust of city government” while talking with the communities affected by water contamination.
The bill, introduced as House Resolution 2021, was introduced in the Senate as well as S.872 by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Grijalva’s strategy for getting it passed in the Senate is to rely on the fact that more than 40 million Americans are impacted by environmental contamination and mostly in working class communities.
He said he hopes this at least appeals to 51 Democrats. The senate is currently divided 50 between Democrats and Republicans with the vice president the tie-breaking vote.
Grijalva said he hopes to get the bill through Congress by late June and signed into law before the end of the summer.
Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.