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'We must shift from recognition to action': Arizona advocates push for environmental justice

Along with state officials and other advocacy groups, the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter took to the Capitol on Wednesday to present a list of priorities for the Arizona Legislature and governor.

The emphasis was on water, but other issues like increasingly hot summers, air quality and the effects of pollution were also raised.

Stephanie Sahl Hamilton, a Democrat, said that as far back as the 1960s, runoff pollution from the Tucson Airport has harmed people she represents.

“Five generations of birth defects, of cancers, of all kinds of medical issues,” said Sahl Hamilton. “We are still seeing the ramifications of people not having access to clean water.”

It’s a prime example, she said, of what environmental justice — an approach to environmental solutions that emphasizes treating people fairly and involving them in solutions, regardless of identity or status — is about.

“That is a crystal clear example of what happens when we do not care for our Earth and care for our people,” Sahl Hamilton said.

Oscar de los Santos, assistant minority leader in the state House, said the Black and Latino families he represents in South Phoenix have been disproportionately affected by industrial pollution.

“Shamefully, Black children are seven times more likely to die from asthma complications than white children,” he said. “And living near areas with higher pollution rates increases the risk of stillbirth by 42%.”

A 2016 report from the American Lung Association found that overall, communities of color have especially high asthma rates.

“One in five Latino adults cannot afford their asthma medications,” said De Los Santos. “And adults who didn't finish high school are more likely to have asthma than adults who graduated from high school and college.”

Alondra Morales, climate justice program coordinator with the Arizona Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander for Equity coalition, said that she grew up in the Maryvale community.

Finding out about contaminated drinking water there, she said, was shocking.

“I grew up drinking that water,” said Morales. “Thankfully, I'm healthy, but I don't know what the long-term effects could be to my health. But again, this drinking water created a cancer cluster.”

It’s an issue that also hit close to home for state Rep. Betty Villegas, a Democrat from Pima County.

“When I was 16, I lost my mother to ovarian cancer,” said Villegas. “And my mother was somebody that grew up in the area, drinking the water, bathing in the water.”

It’s an issue Villegas and others present vowed to keep working at and raising awareness about.

“We must shift from recognition to action" for those in affected neighborhoods that are still dealing with what advocates call environmental injustices, Morales said.

One of the groups’ proposals is to introduce a law that promotes directing roughly 40% of the benefits from certain investments to help disproportionately harmed communities. Priorities also include safe water access and other issues affecting the resources and people within them.

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.