As a global phenomenon, environmental racism occurs when communities of color are disproportionately impacted by toxic exposure because of the neighborhoods they live in. Due to factors such as the inaccessibility of affordable rent or land, historical racism, and lack of power to fight corporations, Black, Latino and Indigenous people are usually forced to inhabit areas close to industrial sites, landfills, truck routes, ports, and military bases.
Unfortunately, Arizona is no exception when it comes to environmental racism and social injustice. There are seven military bases in the state that were or are a considerable source of pollution among communities of color.
Over 6 million Arizonians live in neighborhoods with poor air quality, high particulate matter levels, and ozone pollution. Perhaps the most undeniable proof that environmental racism is alive and well in the state is that people of color are 3.5 times more likely to inhabit areas that received a failing air quality grade.
Furthermore, high concentrations of arsenic fluoride are often found in marginalized communities, particularly in tribal lands. Women with greater ozone exposure are 12% more likely to experience a miscarriage early in their pregnancies. They are also 13% more prone to losing a pregnancy due to air pollution exposure.
Phoenix has racially distributed communities of color into the southern and western parts of the city, neighborhoods that are within a five-mile radius of freeways — specifically, I-10, I-17 and the 202 South. They are lined with industrial parks, waste facilities, and a toxic landfill.
The city’s south side was zoned for industrial facilities and landfills, which release harmful environmental toxins into the close residential areas of Phoenix. The city has labeled this place “hazardous land”, which speaks volumes about the pollution level there.
However, a lesser-known contributor to environmental racism among disenfranchised communities is military bases, which Arizona abounds in.
Military bases in Arizona are major sources of PFAS and other toxic chemicals
Since 1967, military firefighters have been using the fire suppressant AFFF to extinguish jet fuel and petroleum fires. Because it sometimes contains up to 98% perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – PFAS, a group of over 5,000 toxic chemicals – it is extremely dangerous to human health. Exposure to these substances can result in prostate cancer and bladder cancer, among other serious diseases.
While firefighters have the highest risk of developing a health problem, everyone who lives on and near military bases has a greater health burden than the general population due to PFAS exposure. These harmful chemicals may infiltrate the groundwater and wells in the nearby communities, which are the main drinking water sources.
One of the military bases in Arizona with severe PFAS contamination is Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Located within the city limits of Tucson, it is one of the most active facilities in the country.
A few years ago, the military base had a PFAS level of up to 3,300 ppt, which greatly exceeds the safe exposure limit. Still, the EPA’s current limit for PFAS in drinking water of 70 ppt is considered too high by some environmental advocacy groups such as Environmental Working Group, which endorses a 1 ppt limit.
Given this new limit, the PFAS contamination at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is considerably more dangerous than it is presumably safe.
With neighborhoods comprising a 78% Latino population, southside Tucson residents have always faced economic, racial, and social disparities. The presence of this military base is just one of the contributors to the environmental racism they have to endure. These disadvantaged people are also exposed to volatile organic compounds, trichloroethylene, and petroleum hydrocarbons.
Hughes Aircraft Co. regularly disposed of a degreaser in the Tucson International Airport area from 1952 to 1981. The degreaser, subsequently determined to contain the toxic solvent trichloroethylene, seeped into the groundwater that would supply drinking water to the residents on the south side.
Another military base in Arizona with concerning environmental contamination is Fort Huachuca Army Base. Established in 1877 and located in Cochise County, multiple toxic agents were found lurking at this military facility in addition to PFAS, including pesticides, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and petroleum hydrocarbons.
The massive dairy operation Riverview that caused a water crisis and has been releasing clouds of toxic dust in the Kansas Settlement area was already a serious enough health threat for Cochise County residents. When you add the harmful substances that have most likely leaked into the groundwater from Fort Huachuca Army Base, the health burden of these communities increases dramatically.
Lung cancer in the shadow of Davis-Monthan AFB
As a small and frail woman, Susan W. is a 74-year-old Tucson resident who has been living close to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base since 1971. She recalls her first symptoms of lung cancer, such as recurrent chest infections, a lingering cough, and shortness of breath, which she did not think much about at the time. Because Susan had never been a smoker, the thought of having developed lung cancer did not cross her mind for a second, but little did she know the impact PFAS exposure had on her health.
In March 2021, she sought medical help and was diagnosed with stage II non-small-cell lung cancer. Following surgery on her right lung to remove the malignant tumors and several months of chemotherapy, Susan became cancer-free.
Shortly after she found out what the cause of her disease was, she also decided to seek legal recourse. Nevertheless, this is one of the cases with a happy ending for the toxic exposure victim, as most experience irreversible health damage due to the hazardous chemicals they breathe in or ingest.
How can victims achieve environmental justice?
Public law has failed communities of color impacted by environmental racism over and over. If corporations generate air pollution above the safe exposure limit in areas inhabited by Black, Latino or Indigenous people, they usually receive lower fines, allowing the vicious cycle of corruption and environmental racism to continue. On the flip side, private law offers affected communities significantly more effective tools to fight unethical and greedy corporations, such as toxic tort and class action lawsuits.
By forcing industries that violate environmental laws to pay substantial compensation to communities of color that have no choice but to live in heavily polluted areas, they will hopefully be discouraged from releasing pollution among vulnerable people and implementing better regulations.
A good example of how fruitful private law can be is the Hualapai Tribe in northwestern Arizona taking legal action to stop the construction of a lithium mine that would threaten a major water source. In the spring of this year, a federal judge halted the construction of the mine because of its potential effects on Indigenous lands.