Claudio Rodriguez grew up in the Los Niños neighborhood south of Irvington Road and east of Alvernon Way, but it wasn't until he moved to a different area of Tucson that he noticed a stench that hangs in the air.
The source, he thinks, is the smokestack that hangs over that busy corner against the freeway, a backdrop to Rodriguez's childhood, that releases emissions from one of the four units at Tucson Electric Power's Sundt Generating Station—our city's electricity producer that uses coal and natural gas.
"It was the way I navigated myself. The tower is where home is. Follow that and I'm home," he said, sitting at a picnic shelter with other south side residents at the Los Niños Park. "In the winters it was very curious. I could see the smoke coming out and my dad told me that's where the clouds are being made."
But as Rodriguez got more involved in social justice work as he grew—he's now an organizer with Tierra y Libertad—he recognized there was more going on in his old neighborhood where he grew up with mostly Mexican- and African-American kids; a neighborhood with an average annual income less than $11,000.
"I've learned more about all these pollutants that exist in this area and then think about being kids standing out here in the rain with our mouths open," he says, shaking his head back and forth.
Which is why Rodriguez decided to be part of the public commenting process during agreement negotiations between TEP and the Environmental Protection Agency that lead to a a final ruling by the EPA on Friday, June 27. The EPA issued a formal agreement, proposal by TEP last year that the Tucson electric utility company end use of coal by 2017 and only use gas to produce Tucson's electricity. TEP also owns plants in Springerville and part of the Navajo Generating Station near Page.
The final ruling is part of Arizona's Regional Haze Federal Implementation Plan addressing six facilities in Arizona to reduce 2,900 tons of nitrogen oxides and 29,300 tons of sulfur dioxides per year to improve visibility in 17 national parks and wilderness areas in Arizona, New Mexico and California.
TEP's long range plans have included reducing and ending use of coal, a product it has used on and off since the mid-1970s energy crisis when feds told utility companies to start using coal. TEP spokesman Joesph Barrios told the Tucson Weekly that TEP supports the EPA plan, especially because the transition will be more cost effective for customers.
The plan, crafted by TEP, is a much better approach to the EPA requirements, Barrios added.
In reaction to Friday's press release sent out by the Sierra Club Rincon Chapter's Dan Millis, announcing the final EPA rule issued Friday, June 27 along with comments from south side residents and others involved in the public comment process, Barrios said it's important to note that the health assertions made by the Sierra Club—that there's a serious health impact on the coal TEP burns and that Tucson air isn't clean as a result—is wrong.
"Those are incorrect. ... We have clean air," he said. "It's important to make that clear."
TEP also disagrees with the modeling the Sierra Club uses in its assertions that coal has been bad for Tucson, especially neighborhoods possibly in the plume of the emissions from the smokestack. TEP, Barrios said, uses actual monitoring data, while the Sierra Club uses statistical modeling "not actual data collected by air monitoring equipment."
The day I met Millis and south side community folks at Los Niños Park, the wind was blowing south from the smokestack. There was an odor.
Millis agrees that the statistical modeling used by the Sierra Club may not be the best method, and that yes, air monitors are the best way to determine if there are issues in Pima County with air quality related to coal or anything else. However, the problem is in Pima County there is only one monitor for sulfur dioxide, the coal-burning byproduct at the TEP plant and that monitor is near Oracle and River roads—an area that doesn't exactly get the brunt of the Sundt plant emissions.
Millis also doesn't completely dismiss TEP—adding that the utility company has had a plan to drop a ton of their coal in order to gradually stop using the product, plus the company uses a low-sulfur coal that releases less sulfur dioxide into the air than regular coal, but that's only because unlike other plants in the country, the TEP plant doesn't have sulfur controls, which would better control emissions.
"Data is tough to pin down and nail down," Millis said, but the mapping is at least good to show visually where the problems exist, from the south side neighborhoods to areas in the foothills, Tumamoc and other areas where the emissions sit, because of the mountains, weather and wind patterns—which is part of the statistical mapping.
TEP, he says, hasn't always burned coal. In 2012, for example, the company burned mostly gas. The decisions are based on the market and what is cheaper for the company to purchase. But it would be incredulous to think differently—"without sulfur dioxide controls in such an urban area, it is bad for public health."
Another area of frustration is this wait until 2017—it might take a few days to switch fuels, but TEP could start burning gas this week, according to Millis, rather than waiting until 2017.
According to TEP's Barrios, the issue isn't a lack of desire to end coal use on the utility's part, but because it has a large coal inventory on site and because "the cost of fuel is incurred by our customers, while we understand their concerns," the remaining coal needs to be used, as well as other modest changes to unit four where coal is burned. "We're already working toward getting to a place by 2017 not using coal anymore. We've looked at their rule and are supportive of their implementation plan."
Why this is happening now, however, goes back to attorneys from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups who looked at records of plants that have old systems in place.
Those attorneys brought this up with the EPA and its' what prompted the company to come up with a plan, according to Millis.
Sierra Club locally stepped in to organize with other community groups, like Derechos Humanos, to provide needed public comment while TEP's plan was submitted to the EPA for review.
Others with Rodriguez—Maria Aparicio, sitting with her son, and Sunnyside School District governing board member Eva Dong—wonder how to continue organizing south side residents to understand environmental issues in their community. "I found out about the Sierra Club's campaign to get TEP to stop using coal through its Rincon chapter newsletter, but I don't think most of my neighbors know what's going on around here or why it's important to understand," Aparicio said.
Aparicio, an attorney by trade who is mostly of Ute descent with a bit of Diné, said she approaches environment issues with the philosophy of "looking forward seven generations to what's going to happen," plus she comes from a long line of coal miners and has seen the health problems her relatives faced due to their work.
The EPA ruling is good, she said, but now she wonders if the next campaign needs to focus on convincing Pima County to place more sulfur dioxide monitors in more locations across the county, not just at Oracle and River roads.
Dong has seen many environmental issues come up that the community has successfully challenged but continues to monitor, such as the TCE contamination and superfund site at the Tucson International Airport and the Environmental Justice Action Group organizing that took place to address the beryllium contamination at Brush Wellman Ceramics a source of health problems for workers and neighbors until it was addressed and monitored.
"I live on the south side and basically keep on top of some of the things ever since we were hit with the TCE contamination and then the beryllium at Brush Wellman," Dong said.
We need to always be vigilant. When we are then they do it better. When we're not then they do it the cheap way."
The complete story is too long for our deadtree issue, so visit daily.tucsonweekly.com for more from TEP and the Sierra Club.