Cleanup of water pollution on south side of Tucson is part of Grijalva’s environmental bill

Bennito L. Kelty

TucsonSentinel.com

Local leaders in southern Arizona gathered on Wednesday to voice their support for 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. Representative Raúl Grijalva, the Democrat from Tucson who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced the bill last March but said he had spent his political career repairing damage to communities. low-income and Tucson Latinos by water contaminants like trichlorethylene and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as TCE and PFAS.

Water pollution has been a threat to area residents for years, and cleaning it up is a priority for local, state and federal officials in southern Arizona. High levels of PFAS, a long-lived chemical used in plastics, coatings and fire-fighting foams, several years ago polluted a regional groundwater aquifer near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base that was the main source of drinking water for more than 65,000 people. Similar incidents have plagued Tucson’s mostly Latino south side in the past.

The Environmental Justice for All bill, which Grijalva and other members of Congress are touting during a nationwide tour of cities like New York and Detroit, aims to fund remediation and cleanup efforts across the countries and create greater government accountability. It would also create a protected class for “frontline communities,” or those most affected by environmental hazards due to their economic and geographic vulnerabilities.

“The TCE contamination that many of us ignored for generations in the south end of the city was an integral part of my political upbringing in that community,” Grijalva said. “At the time, we didn’t have a definition of environmental justice, but all we knew was that the communities affected were mostly working class and poor and mostly communities of color.”

Grijalva said he doesn’t want to see communities of color continue to be treated as “a dumping ground.” Instead, the measure would invest in equity at the local level, create community engagement and ensure that federal agencies hear public complaints and petitions against government injustices or inactions. “Environmental issues need elements of equity and justice,” he said.

Local government leaders from Pima County, Tucson and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe showed up in support of Grijalva at a press conference Wednesday. Several spoke of the impact the bill would have on the South Side to repair damage caused by water, air and soil contamination, including PFAS and TCE.

They included Tucson Mayor Regina Romero and Councilwoman Lane Santa Cruz; Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County Chief Medical Officer; Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, a member of the county council and daughter of the congresswoman; as well as Pascua Yaqui President Peter Yucupicio and Herminia Frias, a Yaqui councillor.

Romero spoke of the benefits for “frontline communities” such as people of color, with disabilities or with children, seniors and low-income people, indigenous or fossil fuel-dependent communities.

“(This bill) really looks at the disparate effect of contamination like PFAS on front-line communities, including our low-income and BIPOC communities,” she told TucsonSentinel.com, referring to Black, Indigenous and People of Color like BIPOC. “For the City of Tucson, it is very important to see the Environmental Justice for All Bill pass,” as it seeks to require community engagement from the federal government and create ongoing funding for cleanup efforts.

Garcia, who is Pima County’s top medical expert, also saw the potential for the bill’s requirements at the federal level, saying “the legislation is so important because it compels federal regulatory agencies, like (the Agency of environmental protection) to be accountable”. It also gives updated standards for how much PFAS is safe, he said, which is an important step that is not yet in place.

“I grew up here, in the very heart of the TCE plume as it was happening,” Garcia said, referring to notable contamination in 1987 that affected much of the south side. “I always wondered if the bad result that (the neighbours) had had something to do with the fact that we grew up drinking the same water.”

Linking disease to contamination is difficult, Garcia said, but the bill offers a way to make it easier by requiring federal agencies to document health risks in areas to determine which policies have had a negative impact. . The bill would also take money from the Department of Defense to address contamination caused at Air Force bases and other military installations.

A one-time round of funding for the PFAS cleanup in Tucson will also come from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in the winter, but Romero said Tucson needs the ongoing funding that is part of Grijalva’s bill.

There is a ‘painful and 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 is already a breakdown of trust between people and their local government due to contamination.

Councilwoman Santa Cruz, whose Ward 1 boundaries reach to the South Side, also spoke to the point, saying she and fellow South Side Councilor Richard Fimbres have encountered “a lot of pain and a lot of distrust at the ‘regard of the city government’ while talking with affected communities. by water contamination.

The bill, introduced as a 2021 House resolution, was introduced in the Senate along with S.872 by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL). Grijalva’s strategy to get it through the Senate is to build on the fact that more than 40 million Americans are affected by environmental contamination and mostly in working-class communities.

He said he hopes it will please at least 51 Democrats. The Senate is currently split 50 between Democrats and Republicans, with the Vice President having the deciding vote.

Grijalva said he hopes to get the bill passed by Congress by the end of June and signed into law before the end of the summer.

Bennito L. Kelty is the IDEA reporter for TucsonSentinel.com, focusing on stories of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, and a member of the Report for America body.

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