A 22-year-old Havasupai woman was the first to speak.
Carlotta Tilousi fixed her eyes on Ed Fox, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. "My people live in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There are only 800 of us," she said. "Our main source of water comes from a spring fed by the San Francisco Peaks. We worry that the proposed Sage uranium mine will contaminate our water. Yet DEQ issued a groundwater permit to the mine. Why? Why did you do that? My people did not have a chance to speak out against the mine. We want the whole permitting process to start again. Work more closely with my people."
In all, five activists representing Native American and Hispanic groups spoke out at a recent meeting at DEQ headquarters on North Central Avenue. They were all there to demand "environmental justice," the concept that no community, no matter how poor or how rich, no matter how brown or how white, should have to endure environmental pollution.
"This is a human rights issue," said Ron Van Fleet, a Mohave Indian, who warned Fox of a planned low-level nuclear waste dump on the California side of the Colorado River. "We are not rich enough to defend ourselves," said Van Fleet.
Ed Fox nodded and listened. He took notes. He promised to look into things.
The fact that Ed Fox called the meeting in the first place is proof that the national "environmental justice" movement has taken hold in Arizona.
Nationwide, minority groups have banded together to demand that state and federal environmental officials clean up pollution in and near their communities. They say they want their neighborhoods to be cleaned up as quickly as those of wealthy, mostly white, neighborhoods are cleaned up. They want industries in their areas to pay the same high fines for polluting that industries in wealthy, mostly white, areas must pay.
They have reason to be upset.
The National Law Journal reported last September that industries in minority areas are allowed by regulators to pollute more and clean up less than industries that operate in white areas.
But it wasn't until this year that Albuquerque-based Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, an eight-state organization of minority activists that includes Arizona groups, finally rattled the EPA's cage.
This summer the activists got their hands on a confidential EPA document that branded their "environmental justice" movement as "one of the most politically explosive environmental issues yet to emerge."
The EPA planned to enlist the help of "mainstream [environmental] groups" before the minority "activists enlist them in a campaign that could add the agency to industry and local officials as a potential target," according to the undated memo.
After being chastised by congressional leaders for its insensitivity to minorities, the EPA began to change its environmental policy. First, it established the Office of Environmental Equity. Next, after an eight-year delay, it instituted laws to protect farmworkers who are regularly exposed to pesticides.
And high-ranking EPA officials began visiting polluted minority neighborhoods.
In Arizona, DEQ director Fox has followed the national lead. That's why he called the meeting. He said he wanted to hear the problems.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Tupac Enrique, an activist for Maricopa County Organizing Project, demanded that DEQ test pesticide-polluted irrigation wells--the only source of drinking water for many farmworkers.
Francisco Navarrete, another local activist, asked DEQ to protect barrio children from environmental assaults, such as lead poisoning, by setting up an awareness program in the Murphy School District.
Fox didn't make any promises, except to say that DEQ was developing an "environmental equity task force" and that he wanted to "sensitize" DEQ workers to "environmental equity issues."
This doesn't impress activist Tupac Enrique. "I don't have faith in bureaucracies," he said. "I have more faith in the power of the people to hold those bureaucracies accountable.