Voices Unheard

Ground-truths from Arizona’s Superfund sites

By Clara Migoya

Link to Spanish version

Denise Moreno Ramirez was 10 years old when she saw her hometown featured in USA Today. It was the late 1980s and Nogales, Arizona was facing severe cases of lupus and cancer as a result of a chemical trail dozens of maquiladoras left in the drinking water. Industries assembling electronics and car parts worked for decades in the borderlands, drawn by the low cost of manual labor and import privileges.

As economic growth boomed on both sides of the border, so did the unregulated spill of Trichloroethylene (TCE) and other carcinogenic solvents.

“The border didn’t stop at all the contamination,” says Moreno. “It came without a passport.”

Nearly seventy miles north, Tucson was experiencing a similar story. One Moreno would know well 20-some years later as program coordinator for the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program, and then during her doctoral dissertation, playing a key role in preserving the oral history of some Tucson International Airport neighbors in a project titled Voices Unheard

In 1981 the City of Tucson and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found chromium, cadmium, cyanide, TCE and several other solvents in the groundwater — the only source of water for upwards of 47,000 people.

Two years later the city closed eleven wells on the south side and in 1984 the Tucson International Airport Area (TIAA) was designated a superfund site by the EPA and given priority for remediation.

From as far back as 1942, it is suspected that over 20 facilities contributed to the accumulation of hazardous chemicals in the TIAA area with many engaging in unregulated dumping of chemicals through a variety of activities and operations.

Above all, Hughes Missile Systems (now Raytheon), disposed enormous amounts of solvents and degreasing chemicals into the desert ground. Hughes faced numerous lawsuits from residents affected with a plethora of maladies throughout the ensuing decades.

The health effects of nearby residents are still being studied to this day.

Tucson’s south side has been recognized as one of the most contaminated areas in the state, according to the EPA’s ranking system. The culprit, as in Moreno’s hometown, was unregulated disposal of solvents and degreasing chemicals into the ground near neighborhoods of predominantly low income and Hispanic residents.

Denise Moreno Ramirez gives an update on the Voices Unheard project to attendees of the April 2019 Unified Community Advisory Board meeting at El Pueblo Neighborhood Center.

Valle Verde, Moreno’s neighborhood, never obtained a superfund designation. However, multiple medical studies at the time evidenced a cluster of cancer and lupus cases, overlapping the maquiladoras area of operation and the neighborhood.

This moved Moreno to join the science club of her high school and promote environmental education in the community. 

Not long after, public health researchers from the University of Arizona approached the club to request support. They asked students to conduct surveys in the neighborhood and encourage participation in the community to assess health impacts. They did, but then never heard back from the institution. Moreno believes the research was published, but she never saw the results.

This experience influenced Moreno and pushed her toward becoming a scientist and researcher. Moreno, 42, now stands a step away from her doctoral dissertation in environmental science and medical anthropology at the University of Arizona

“They could have done so much for us,” said Moreno, thinking back on the lack of opportunities that young people of her community had to higher level science education.

“I didn’t like that. So, then I thought ‘I am going to be an environmental scientist, because there are no people that look like me here (in academia).

 “Not with my experience or how I grew up.”

As a fronteriza, someone whose cultural identity is tied to the borderlands, Moreno recognizes that very few people know how what it’s like to grow up facing the wall.

“People don’t understand that the border is a very special area,” she said. “That culture doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Moreno now does research her own way. For almost 20 years she has done community-based research in the borderlands, working with numerous stakeholders in areas of environmental disparity, assessing public health and engaging in community action.

In 2008 she co-founded CampCIENCIAS with other two Latina scientists from the University of Arizona, sponsoring 20 kids from border towns to participate in a five day science education program. 

Her first step out of the borderlands, taken to pursue her scientific career, wasn’t easy though. Moreno thought she knew what it was like to grow up in the U.S., until she moved out of Nogales. It was like crossing another border, she said.

She achieved a bachelor’s in environmental sciences at Northern Arizona University, where she acclimated to both the cold weather and school life far from home. She experienced cultural and linguistic shock in the predominantly white college town.

However, she rose to the occasion and began working in a lab project under the guidance of Michael Ort, professor at the School of Earth and Sustainability, testing plant tolerance of metal sequestration. 

Moreno’s line of research and work today, has expanded to areas including ethnography, watershed management, public policy, community facilitation and public health research.

Ort, who was one of Moreno’s first undergraduate teachers is not surprised at her list of achievements. He knew Moreno was rare and recognized that she had a knack for interdisciplinary research.

“There has to be that underlying comfort with the unknown, with not really working with a safety net under you,” said Ort. “What’s remarkable about Denise is that she does it in much broader areas.”

Moreno eventually went back south.

As she was advancing towards a master’s degree in watershed management at the University of Arizona, she worked for the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy.

Her job as a research specialist was to work as community organizer with numerous stakeholders in the watershed council of Cananea, Sonora.

She helped establish dialogue between miners, farmers, housewives, government authorities, environmental agencies and Grupo México —the largest mining company in the country that some years after would be responsible of the largest environmental disaster in Mexico’s history; a spill of 1.4 million acre feet of copper sulfate into the Bacanuchi and Sonora rivers.

“She was very good at working with underrepresented communities in the borderlands because she had knowledge in so many different things,” Ort said.

“She’s got the science, the cultural and linguistic fields and then she has the ability to go and talk to regulators, politicians and the public. That requires an ability to see the world through other people’s eyes. I’ve seen Denise do it.”

In 2005 Moreno got involved in superfund research at the TIAA site. As coordinator for the University of Arizona Superfund Research Program, she engaged with stakeholders from the United Community Advisory Board (UCAB), a group constituted by EPA staff, community members, and agencies including Tucson Water who supervise the affected area’s remediation.

Moreno attended UCAB meetings, held every three months, for almost ten years. She listened attentively. The board identified a need to collect the oral histories of Tucson’s affected, south side residents.

As she heard the stories of those affected by the contamination, she also knew they had to preserve them. Their stories couldn’t and shouldn’t be forgotten, she said.

This encouraged her to enter the doctoral program and start a dissertation project devoted to salvaging those voices.

“Superfund sites not only have a history of pollution, but also of research, advocacy, and illness,” writes Moreno in the opening section of the Voices Unheard website.

“Everyone’s story matters when it comes to the impacts of contamination.”

Focusing on the history of hazardous contaminated sites and personal history preservation, Voices Unheard shares the experiences and life history of people who lived and worked in the Tucson International Airport Area and Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter, two of the 36 Superfund sites in the state of Arizona.

The records are accessible through the project website and will be saved by the UArizona Special Collections archive indefinitely. However, Moreno says that at some point she wants to turn these oral histories into public history.

Letting these stories out of the archive and into the community is something that was set as a priority as she and the UCAB members, her “research partners” she says, discussed the project.

 “This is about us,” said Ignacio López, in one of the interviews of Voices Unheard.

It is estimated that tens of thousands of Tucson’s southside residents have been affected by TCE pollution of the Tucson International Airport Area. For decades neighbors and community advocates have committed to a long-term process to demand accountability and monitor the results of groundwater clean-ups.

Since 1994 the Tucson International Airport Area Groundwater Remediation Project (TAARP) has removed 5,887 pounds of TCE from groundwater.

However, there are no precise numbers for all the people who have died from the effects of long-term exposure to the contaminants or of the citizens who experience illness and health damages to this day.

Fourteen relatives of Henry Vega, a lifelong Tucsonan and one of El Pueblo Clinic’s founding members, were affected from cancer. Some he has lost, including his sister.

“We were losing people in the neighborhood from different cancers, including lupus,” Vega, 83, shares with the Voices Unheard project. “Back in the day I couldn’t keep track of the number.”

After a long series of  twenty-plus lawsuits against Hughes Missile Systems and other potentially responsible parties, very few have resulted in an effective settlement for medical monitoring; less than half of the estimated affected population received benefits from the sustained legal fights.

“A lot of time you get diseases, and these diseases don’t catch up with you for a few years,” said Ignacio Gómez, TIAA neighbor, cancer survivor, longest serving UCAB co-chair and one of the voices preserved in Moreno’s oral history project.

Voices Unheard recorded the stories of 10 TIAA area residents affected by the contamination in one way or another, saving place-based experiences of illness and resistance for future generations.

For Moreno, preserving personal histories is preserving truth and shaping history.

The other half of Voices Unheard, tells the stories of the Dewey-Humboldt Superfund site, where arsenic, lead and other metals polluted water and soil. Historic exploitation in Iron King mine, from the 1800s to 1960s, and their toxic legacy of 4 million tons of tailings, make the town of Dewey-Humboldt one of the country’s worst environmental hazards.

Moreno found an overwhelming percentage of workers at the Dewey-Humboldt site were Mexican, but this was not widely reported or known. During her numerous years of research, she continued to find this in oral history that was largely absent from government records.

Moreno’s project connects some of these workers to the site, giving them voice where before they were unheard.

Her observations of environmental injustice and health disparities are nothing short of environmental racism, she says.

To this day her hometown, Nogales, also continues to face cases of chronic illness. Decades after the USA Today story shed light on the contamination and the EPA intervened, a medical study published in 2012 revealed that TCE could still be found in the breast milk of residents.

Commitment to long-term community-based research and the ability to work with a wide variety of actors is something rare in academia. It was only around 2005 that federal funding required all Superfund research grant recipients to include applied research and community projects.

“Now there is a contrast with who are ‘helicopter investigators’,” says Moreno. The kind that she met as a high-schooler in Nogales.

“Few people can really exercise community-based research. I want to see who will be able to implement it. It will be interesting.”

Using technical, social and scientific skills, Moreno has worked in Tucson and the borderlands facilitating collaboration and conducting applied research. However, she feels that her role as a trans-disciplinary environmental scientist has been overlooked. She knew she needed to achieve her Ph.D., to have a role as a Principal Investigator going forward, she said.

As she stands one step away from her doctoral dissertation, she underscores what a sense of place means.

“There are not many people that can work (do this type of research) in Nogales,” Moreno says. “It takes years and years. It takes passion.”  

“I really want to go back,” she says. “I want to make a change on who are the people really doing research.”