Stories of Local Leaders

Tackling TCE Pollution in Tucson: Living Room Leadership with Linda Robles of the Environmental Justice Task Force

By: Kayleigh Coughlin, Communications Intern
In an interview on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership Series, Linda Robles, founder of the Tucson Environmental Justice Task Force, shared her experience battling TCE contamination in her neighborhood.
Since the 1940s, military installations in Tucson, AZ have been using and improperly disposing of TCE and other toxic chemicals. These chemicals leaked into the soil and groundwater of surrounding communities, poisoning residents who drank the tap water in their homes. In the 1980s, the EPA asked the city of Tucson to close all TCE-tainted wells in the area, but the city did not fully comply. As a result, a predominantly Mexican-American community, low-income on the Southside of Tucson has been severely affected.
The EPA declared Robles’ community and the surrounding area, including the Tucson International Airport, a Superfund site in 1994 due to its contaminated groundwater and soil. Despite declaring this Superfund site, the government failed to acknowledge the adverse health effects residents in the area were experiencing, such as high rates of cancer, birth defects, lupus and other diseases. Robles said, “We knew the TCE-tainted water was to blame”. Robles stated The Environmental Justice Task Force was created to organize around these health issues and prevent further pollution. In 2014, the group began a series of health assessments among its members through door-knocking, and the data on cancer clusters collected through these assessments increased awareness of the problem among Tucson’s elected officials.
CHEJ helped the Environmental Justice Task Force focus their organizing efforts. In 2018, Lois Gibbs came to town and provided the group with organizing training and strategies that helped Robles’ group grow. With CHEJ’s help, the group convinced the EPA and local officials to conduct a vapor intrusion investigation at six different schools between two districts in the area. While the community has this win to celebrate, Robles admits that organizing is still a challenge for her group due to the large undocumented population in the area. Many undocumented immigrants in the community care about the issue, but are nervous to get involved because they fear deportation, Robles stated. “Their silenced voices lead us all – local officials and the EPA, especially – to underestimate the threat we are facing”.
To learn more about the Tucson Environmental Justice Task Force and how you can help, visit
To listen to Linda Robles’ full interview with CHEJ, click here.

Homepage News Archive

Stop the revolving door — Americans don’t support fossil fuel industry leaders running climate policy

There are many ways in which Americans are united.
Across party lines Americans reject the so-called revolving door. People in government and industry move back and forth working for companies when they are out of government and supposedly overseeing them when they are in government. Since the industry employers invariably pay more, which master do they serve while they are in government?
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Photo credit: Carolyn Kaster, STF / Associated Press

Backyard Talk

Incarcerated Workers Among Hardest Hit By Wildfires

By: Shaina Smith, Community Organizing Intern
Massive wildfires fuelled by climate change have damaged millions of acres across California, Oregon, and Washington over the past few weeks. Some parts of California have an AQI of over 700. Air Quality Index (AQI) measures air pollution on a scale of 0-500. Any level above 200 is “unhealthy” to “hazardous”.
As residents evacuate areas threatened by the fires, let’s consider those who stayed behind. You might be surprised to learn that California uses prison labor, disproportionately people of color, to battle their wildfires. In fact, incarcerated workers make up to 80% of California fire personnel, including juveniles. The state pays incarcerated workers only 1 dollar an hour (or less if they owe restitution) to fight wildfires. 
With this perspective, prison doesn’t appear to be about justice or rehabilitation, instead about exploiting labor for profit. As exemplified by a question asked by a former corrections officer at one California inmate fire camp: “How do you justify releasing all these inmates in prime fire season?” 
Historically, once released from prison, California abandons their former inmate firefighters, preventing them from being hired as professionals. However, now that covid shutdowns have left no other option, California has passed a bill making it easier for formerly incarcerated people to become firefighters. 
Inmate firefighters work up to 48 hour shifts with 50 pound backpacks. The state does not provide goggles or respirators. It’s no wonder then that incarcerated workers are more than 4 times as likely to sustain an injury than a professional firefighter working on the same fire.
The smoke from these wildfires contains air pollution particles called PM 2.5. PM 2.5 exposure leads to worse coronavirus outcomes. These particles are so small that they enter the bloodstream through the lungs, and cannot be broken down by the immune system.
People residing in low income and minority communities are already disproportionately exposed to PM 2.5 from industry polluters, and are therefore more likely to have an underlying health condition. Underlying conditions exacerbate the dangerous health risks of smoke, specifically heart attacks
Immediate symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure include shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, and eye irritation. Years following wildfire smoke exposure, lung capacity among residents decreased.
Wildfire smoke is linked to an increased rate of emergency doctors visits for respiratory and cardiovascular issues such as heart attack or stroke– specifically for adults over 65. Black people who live in areas where the poverty rate is above 15% were particularly affected
As this latest challenge demonstrates, climate change imposes the heaviest burdens on people of color. The evil of capitalism and racism in the United States is intrinsically linked even to crises in nature, such as wildfires and coronavirus.
Photo credit: Newsweek