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Kay, now a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, received Arizona's highest journalism award in 1985--the Virg Hill Newsperson of the Year--for the series. Kay is out of the country on extended vacation and could not be reached for comment.
But her editor at the Tucson newspaper, Jon Kamman, recalls that the series took its toll on the reporter. She interviewed residents who were ill or dying, which was emotionally draining. She mastered thousands of pages of documents and scientific reports. She faced pressure from Kamman and other editors to complete the work more quickly. "We grew increasingly restless for it to come to fruition," recalls Kamman, now a business editor at a Phoenix daily. "We began to wonder if this was the Sistine Chapel. But our impatience was tempered by the fact that what she was doing needed a great deal of time and care."
Writing the series of 29 stories, he says, was particularly challenging. "People needed to know how just a little TCE is toxic in drinking water, and then we had to get across the idea that gallons of the stuff went into the groundwater. It was pretty frightening," he says.
Kay also was pressured by local officials who told her not to print the series because she would "panic" the citizenry, Kamman recalls.
Day after day Rose Marie Augustine followed the hard-hitting series, which was also carried by television stations. She felt she had answers now, for her lupus, for her husband's cancer, for the neighbors' maladies.
Kay's articles transformed Augustine into a community activist.
Within a few days, Rose Marie Augustine helped form a citizens group called Tucsonians for a Clean Environment, or TCE. The group is still active today. "We wanted to know what was going on," says Augustine. "We still do."
Augustine's group has always held community meetings, carrying information back and forth between citizens and bureaucrats.
She herself has joined several national groups that advocate for citizens faced with environmental disasters, including Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste and the National Toxics Campaign. She is also a member of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a coalition of labor and minority groups fighting toxic waste.
Because of these associations, formed after Kay's articles alerted her to the pollution problems in Tucson, Rose Marie Augustine is becoming increasingly more adept at putting environmental regulators on notice that they are being scrutinized by a well-informed public. For instance, she has arranged for EPA Superfund administrator David McGovern to visit south Tucson later this month. On the agenda is a discussion of the failure of pump-and-treat technology to cleanse aquifers of TCE. The government did not tell Augustine of the pump-and-treat controversy. Hughes Aircraft did not tell Augustine of the controversy. The press did not tell Augustine of the controversy.
She learned of the controversy during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with a national advocacy group. She learned because she had been motivated to become informed seven years ago by a newspaper reporter who did extraordinary work.
Among Augustine's other accomplishments:
ùWhen officials said south Tucson property values were not affected by the contamination, Augustine and her group vigorously disagreed. "You can't give a house away there," she says. The group pressured the Pima County Assessor to reassess the neighborhoods. After seven years, the assessor agreed, and the report is due later this summer.
ùWhen the federal ATSDR reported that there were no unusual illnesses in the area, Augustine cited Kay's articles and demanded another, more thorough study.
ùBecause she doesn't trust water officials who say the water is now safe, she has demanded that the water officals be accompanied by citizens when they sample the wells. Citizens will send their own samples to an independent lab.
ùShe has succeeded in getting the city and county to pledge a total of $500,000 for a clinic to treat residents with TCE-related illnesses.
ùShe has organized mom-and-pop businesses to protest the proposed construction of a pipeline carrying TCE-contaminated water through south Tucson's main business street.
Augustine and about 2,000 other Tucsonians filed suit against Hughes, charging that the TCE pollution had made them ill. Without accepting blame, the company settled in 1990 for $85 million.
"I think the EPA and others are upset about our group being so active," she says. "We are informing people, and information is power."
Across the nation, community activists agree with Augustine that getting public information from the government is often stressful and unpleasant.
"Government officials seem to always say, 'Trust me, everything is under control. Don't worry,'" says Rand Wilson, a Boston, Massachusetts, community organizer for the Campaign for Responsible Technology, a citizens group that lobbies against industrial pollution. "The government views interested citizens as cranks and complainers. In fact, most activists do the public a tremendous service by getting the information out. They make democracy real in the deepest way."
In Arizona, residents in both Tucson and Phoenix felt let down by regulators. The difference was that for a brief period of time a journalist in Tucson struggled against overwhelming odds to keep the public informed.
Jane Kay had moved to a different state when the controversy emerged over pump-and-treat technology. But because Rose Marie Augustine became a citizen activist in 1985 as a result of Kay's series, she was several years ahead of her counterparts in Phoenix.