By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Since 1981, residents from the poor, mostly Latino south Tucson neighborhoods that now are in the Tucson International Airport Area Superfund Site have had little reason to trust government officials.
And this spring, their confidence eroded more, after the state killed a long-standing appropriation that paid for half of a $500,000 health-care program for "working poor" south Tucsonans who had been exposed to TCE, or trichloroethylene, in public drinking-water supplies.
Legislators representing the neighborhoods didn't even bother to protest the funding slash.
The Tucson health-care plan is the only such program in the state for people who have been exposed to TCE, a solvent and suspected carcinogen.
"Just when we're about to believe our government is going to do something for us, the government pulls the rug out from under us again," says south Tucson activist Rose Augustine.
South Tucsonans such as Augustine learned in 1981 that they had been drinking water from city wells that had been laced with TCE. From the end of World War II through the 1960s, TCE, a degreaser for mechanical parts, had been dumped onto the ground by defense contractors such as Hughes Aircraft. It had oozed into the groundwater that fed city wells.
The public wells were shut off in 1981, but by then residents who had been exposed since the 1940s had developed high rates of serious, sometimes fatal illnesses such as leukemia, lymphoma, lupus (a disease of the immune system), nervous disorders and heart problems.
Following the well closures, community mistrust of government officials deepened when state and federal scientists could find no link between neighborhood illnesses and TCE-tainted water. State health officials said no high rates of disease existed in the area.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry disagreed. It wrote in a 1995 study that residents in the Superfund site reported higher levels of lupus, cancer, skin disorders and central nervous system disorders than did residents outside the Superfund site. But the study warned that "no conclusions concerning higher rates of symptoms could be attributed to any specific exposure."
The federal study is "a bunch of hogwash," says 62-year-old Henry Vega, a high school teacher whose family has lived in the area for generations. Vega has lost a cousin to leukemia and several members of his family have lupus and nervous disorders.
Vega was among those who fought hard for the TCE "working poor" program at El Pueblo Clinic, a neighborhood health facility. In 1993, Pima County forked over $250,000 for the program. The free health care was intended only for those too poor to afford health insurance, but too "rich" to qualify for free medical care under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, or AHCCCS.
To qualify for care in the El Pueblo TCE program, the residents also had to prove they lived in or attended school in the Superfund site between 1945 and 1981. More than 5,000 patient visits to the clinic were registered last year.
In 1994, state Senator Victor Soltero and other south Tucson legislators obtained a $250,000 matching appropriation for the program, boosting the total state and county dollars for the care of working poor TCE victims to $500,000 annually.
But Soltero, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, did not alert residents when the state decided to remove the TCE appropriation from its 1996-97 budget. In fact, residents say, Soltero told them he didn't even know the appropriation had been killed.
But residents don't suspect Soltero was playing politics or making deals; they figure he simply wasn't paying attention when the Legislature slashed the budget.
Augustine says activists were frequently in touch with Soltero, who "didn't tell us they were going to do this and gave no explanation as to why it was done or who did it."
Soltero simply "fell asleep," says Vega.
Soltero did not return New Times' telephone calls.
Vega says that officials from the Arizona Department of Health Services, who refused to comment to New Times, blamed staffers at the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for deleting the south Tucson fund from the 1996-97 budget. But Vega is no fool; he knows budget staffers work for the Legislature and do nothing independently.
The JLBC placed the money that had gone to El Pueblo into a new "Regional Contamination" fund. From this fund, the state gave the TCE program $120,000 for fiscal 1996-97, but promised nothing for 1998.
The regional fund is intended for environmental health emergencies throughout the state. "They are pitting the communities against each other for a little bit of money," says Augustine, who says state politicos have long shortchanged south Tucson because it is a "community of color" and because no industry-backed politician wants to admit that industrial contamination causes disease.
"We're no longer fighting over whether TCE causes disease," says Augustine. "We've been told repeatedly by government officials there's no problem. We say okay, we're not asking you to say TCE causes a problem. What we're saying is, 'Hey, we have sick people who need attention.'"
In a June 24 letter to Vega, Jack Dillenberg, the director of DHS, wrote: "Although we are not authorized to allocate further funding for your clinic, we will continue to help you in your endeavors to identify other funding sources."