From 1952 to 1981, a chemical used to clean airplanes contaminated the groundwater in a Tucson community. By the time the city stepped in, thousands were already sick or dying.
Matthias Meyer, Graus Wasser, 2014. Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 × 31 1/2 in, 80 × 80 cm. © Matthias Meyer.
On the way home from the doctor, after the initial diagnosis, Fernando asked me if I was okay. I wasn’t. I wanted him to stay home with me, but instead he dropped me off at the house, where I tried to grade papers while he went back to work. Later, as we were falling asleep, he said that all afternoon, when a customer would say, “Thank you,” or “Have a nice day,” he’d think, “I have cancer.”
As a girl, I learned from my mother, who had lost her first husband in the Korean War, to encyst sorrow and bury it deep within, so this is not an essay about grief. It is an essay about water.
In 1977, when Fernando and I had been married for almost four years, we bought a house on the north side of Tucson near the freeway and train tracks. It rained so hard the first winter we lived there that the water rose and began spilling in under the doors. The suddenly lush ivy on the front of our house crawled into the gaps between the window frames and the burnt-adobe bricks. The roof began to leak. Fernando used an ice pick to poke holes in each room’s ceiling, so the water would drain into the hole. Then he used duct tape to fasten a plastic bowl over each leak to catch the rainwater. Bowls were hanging from nearly every ceiling; it was easier than moving all the furniture. In the kitchen, we just let the water drip into a five-gallon paint bucket. All day, while taking care of our two children, I heard the water’s rhythmic drip. But sometimes I’d forget to empty and refasten a bowl to the ceiling. One night, the bowl over our bed got so swollen with rain that it tipped over, soaking us, and our baby, and waking her up.
The neighborhood was called Flowing Wells but we came to call it Seeping Sewers because, when the wind shifted, we could smell the fumes from the ponds at the sewage treatment plant. In the middle of the night, we could hear the trains and, maybe because we had small children, I would wake up worrying about derailments and toxic spills. I was not religious but I had an apocalyptic imagination. I grew a garden in the backyard because I wanted to be able to feed my family when civilization ended.
One-fourth of the yard was planted with corn and pinto beans, the wire fence secured by rebar with upside-down Coors cans glinting in the sun to keep the birds at bay. The grapes tumbled down from the arbor over the vegetable plot, the tomatoes sometimes boiled in their skins before I could pick them, and the neighbors shuttered their windows when they saw me approaching with yet more gigantic zucchinis in my arms. We had peach trees, their limbs so heavy with fruit that they sometimes broke in the summer storms. Because our backyard had once been part of a dairy farm, the soil was dark and loamy, and when the children dug to China, as children do, they found old glass milk bottles.
I wasn’t very clear on logistics in my apocalyptic imaginings: How would I keep neighbors out of my gardens, especially since I’d already shared my zucchini and chard? How would I be able to deny them food for their hungry children? And where did I think the water to keep the garden growing would come from? This was the desert. I was the daughter of a geologist. I knew the water was pumped from artesian wells deep beneath the surface of the earth.
“To say that the desert has no water,” writes Craig Childs in one of Fernando’s favorite books, The Secret Knowledge of Water, “is a tantalizing misstatement. It is believable. But to look over this raven land and know the truth—that there is immeasurable water tucked and hidden and cared for by bowls of rock, by sudden storms, by artwork chiseled hundreds and hundreds of years ago—is by far a greater pleasure and mystery than to think of it as dry and senseless as wadded newspaper. It is not only drought that makes this a desert; it is all the water that cannot be seen.”
I had the idea, back then, that the world would end in fire or water. Now, in the summer of 2015, two years after Fernando’s death, the Catalina Mountains, which rise above the house where we moved twenty years ago, are on fire.
From all of Tucson, you can see the fire at night. The ridge above us glows red, just as it did that first summer, when Fernando told me not to worry because the houses between our place and the ridge were worth more than ours. He said, The firemen won’t let the rich people’s houses burn. They’ll put it out before it gets to us. That summer, we watched as helicopters dropped an orange fire retardant that contains fertilizers to help the vegetation grow back. This summer they’re letting it burn, 150 acres so far, practically nothing when you consider that 1.1 million acres of the American West are on fire and that 5 million acres have already burned in Alaska and 7.2 million in Canada.
I called my daughter and asked her: “If I have to evacuate, what should I save from the house?”
Dad’s ashes, she replied. The copper urn was my first choice, too, though it struck me as odd. Not only was Fernando already ashes, but where else would he want his ashes to stay but here, on this small plot of desert near the mountains?
When Fernando talked about TCE, or trichloroethylene, I imagined dark plumes spreading underneath the ground. On maps, TCE looks like a big purple feather.
“When we got water from the tap, it effervesced in the glass,” Fernando told me. He was talking about the water at his parents’ house in Mission Manor, a new subdivision on Tucson’s south side where his family moved in 1972. “And sometimes there would be a rainbow lying on the surface of the water. When we called the builder, he told us it was because it was a new house. He told us to keep the water running, to clear out the pipes.”
When Fernando talked about TCE, or trichloroethylene, I imagined dark plumes spreading underneath the ground. On maps, TCE looks like a big purple feather. From 1952 until the early eighties, workers at Hughes Aircraft and Tucson International Airport used TCE, an industrial solvent, to clean greasy metal parts of airplanes; they later disposed of the spent solvent by pouring it into open pits, directly on the ground or into culverts, where it eventually percolated into the area’s artesian wells.
My father had told me that the Tucson basin was like a big bathtub filled with gravel and surrounded by mountains. When it rained, he said, the water seeped through the gravel to the bottom of the bathtub where it stayed for eons—ancient water from the runoff of ancient rains. If you tasted it, it would probably seem brackish.
I was fourteen when my family first moved to Tucson from Colorado in 1968, and I remember standing at the living room window in my parents’ house, watching the rain. No one else was home. It was the first time I’d seen the monsoons, the heavy summer rains. The winds were hurricane force, I heard on the radio. The lightning was spectacular and the water was pounding down from the sky, sheeting across the windows. I couldn’t see even to the middle of the driveway. I didn’t know where my parents and my younger sister were.
If they drop a bomb, I thought, the electricity would disappear and the pumps would stop pumping, and suddenly we’d all be out of water. They warned us in school that Tucson was, after all, a town ringed by missiles, number ten on the list of the top targets of our enemies. The desert, back then, seemed to me an apocalyptic landscape, full of plants with thorns and spikes, cacti that resembled swords. I felt I had landed on an inhospitable planet, one where it could easily hit over 100 degrees, day after day, for months on end. If there was no water, I knew, we’d all be dead in three days.
After his family had lived there for a decade or so, people in the neighborhood started dying.
In 1972, just before Fernando and I started dating, his family moved into the tract house in Mission Manor. It lay smack in the middle of the TCE plume, along the flight path to the airport. He had eight younger brothers and sisters. I remember playing ball with the youngest of them in the front yard. We could hear the planes before we saw them emerge above the roofline. They flew so low that they rattled the windows. Then we saw their white-shark underbellies—so enormous, the landing gear, their wide wings. It seemed as if they barely cleared the house, as if we should duck. When we were first married, and I moved in with his family, I often dreamed of planes.
After his family had lived there for a decade or so, people in the neighborhood started dying. Clear patterns didn’t emerge, but sometimes several people in one family would die. Finally, the city tested the water. Some estimates showed TCE contamination at 1,000 times the federal health standards. They closed wells. There were court cases. Red lines were drawn around the housing developments, housing developments where 75 percent of the residents were Hispanic and low-income; once the developments were red-lined, it was impossible to sell those houses, so people stayed where they were. The cleanup began, but it was already too late. On Evelina Street alone, near the school Fernando’s siblings attended, near Mission Manor Park where they played, and near the swimming pool where they swam in the summers, thirty-four cancer cases were documented. Several families now have only one surviving member.
You don’t have to drink TCE or ingest it. TCE can enter your system through your skin when you bathe. When Fernando’s brother Eugene first saw a doctor for hemochromatosis, a rare liver condition that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, he told the doctor that he had lived in the area of Tucson that was affected by TCE. The doctor said he’d have to have complete exposure, like falling into a vat of chemicals, for that to be responsible for his condition. I did have complete exposure, Eugene said. I bathed in it for decades.
Eventually, they found a tumor growing on Eugene’s liver. He had a liver transplant.
TCE is a volatile organic compound, my friend, an environmental engineer, tells me. TCE wants to rise, it wants to be in the air instead of the water. It enters your body when you breathe its vapors in the air or when you drink water contaminated with it. TCE also enters your body through your skin, especially if you have cracks or abrasions or cuts. The first exposure to TCE, and the first drink of that water, initiates a metabolic process that can result in lymphoma, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and kidney and liver cancers. TCE is thought to act as a metabolic trigger. In other words, if you have a predisposition to a form of cancer, let’s say liver cancer, TCE increases your likelihood of developing that cancer, although it may not manifest for decades.
The permissible level of TCE contamination is less than the equivalent of 2.5 teaspoons poured into an Olympic-sized pool.
“In the word ‘ecology,’ the root ‘eco’ is the Greek word for home. It’s really about how we manage our home,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in an interview with Grist in 2004. Responding to a question about environmental justice, he asserted, “In terms of the conventional way that we think of civil rights, the burden of environmental injury always falls on the backs of the poorest people…. So the poor are shouldering the burden for pollution-based prosperity by large corporations who have control of the political process.”
Fernando used to describe how his grandmother grew rows of corn and hollyhocks in her garden. He and his brothers would chase one another up and down the rows. She’d hang the laundry in the garden, and had a wood stove under a ramada and a pot of beans on the stove. She made tortillas there, under the ramada, on summer mornings, when it was still cool but before the afternoon rains came. Her tortillas were the big ones, so thin they were almost translucent. There, in the trees, she’d hang terra-cotta pots filled with water. The water was always cool, he said, and tasted of the clay.
When the kids were young, Fernando and I used to take them to the air shows out at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base or drive them out to the Boneyard so we could look at all the old planes that had been retired there. There were thousands of them, with sleek or fat bodies and wings stretched like tails behind them. Some had eyes and mouths painted on them. Some were named after Native Americans: Seminole, Iroquois, Sioux. Others were called Skydancer and Starship. There were Avenger, Voodoo, Banshe, and Demon, as if the names could give them a magical invincibility. There were also the innocuously named C-123s, which had dropped Agents Orange, Blue, Purple, Pink, Green, and White over Vietnam, Laos, and parts of Cambodia during the Vietnam War in order to defoliate the jungle and destroy crops. From 1962 to 1971, during Operation Ranch Hand, the US dropped 12 million gallons of herbicides and defoliates and other dioxins, destroying 5 million acres. The US aircrew even produced its own Smoky the Bear poster that said Only You Can Prevent Forests! “I can’t believe that,” Fernando had said when we read about it: “Only You Can Prevent Forests!”
Still, Fernando loved the Phantom II, its sleek, supersonic lines, its technological beauty. He had always fantasized about space travel. I think he wanted to defy gravity and go out into space, an astronaut far above the dear blue sphere of home.
Fitting, I now think, that it is called the Boneyard. On acres and acres of dirt fields, planes bake in the sun like bones in the desert. Resting there are planes that strafed tree lines and planes that sprayed clouds of rainbow herbicides. Before being retired to the Boneyard, those planes had been washed clean with solvents, and those solvents had seeped into the earth.
When the contamination of the wells on the south side of Tucson hit the news, the Pima County director of health and a few Pima County supervisors, including Ed Moore, told residents that they were getting sick because of the chilies and beans they ate.
Fernando’s sister-in-law, who grew up on the south side of town, died of lymphoma when she was only forty years old. She had been tired, but she attributed that to working outside in the summer heat, where she supervised juveniles sentenced to community service like cleaning up the parks or roadways. One day she woke up at 2 a.m., worried that she was late for work. She was delirious. Her family took her to the hospital, where doctors sedated her, to find out what was wrong. The cancer had already leached the calcium from her bones; the calcium had gone to her brain and given her dementia. Whenever she woke up, she would yank at the tubes in her arms and say, “Home.” They would put her under again. Fernando thought she knew she was dying. For a few years, she had been telling him that she wanted to join the procession to San Xavier Mission at Easter as a manda, or a ritual petition, to ask God for a cure for his hepatitis. He told her she should worry about her own health. Maybe he suspected she was ill. She died in 2005, and only seven years later, he would be dying, and her brother would be diagnosed with tumors in his intestines.
When the contamination of the wells on the south side of Tucson hit the news, the Pima County director of health and a few Pima County supervisors, including Ed Moore, told residents that they were getting sick because of the chilies and beans they ate, and because they drank too much beer and didn’t exercise enough.
Because TCE did not cause a cluster of like cancers, like childhood leukemia, it was difficult to prove fault, and to hold Hughes Aircraft and Tucson International Airport liable. Attorneys settled with the insurance companies. If a person was part of the original lawsuit, and sick with cancer when the suit was filed, then he or she might have been among the 1,600 residents of a possible 47,000 included in the settlement. On their website, the law firm Baron and Budd touts this lawsuit as “among the most important litigation in U.S. history involving personal injuries caused by water pollution.” They say that they hired scientists who proved that TCE caused “several unusual forms of cancer,” especially in children, but the results of those studies about cancer, found “at almost epidemic levels” on the south side of Tucson, cannot be revealed because, according to the terms of the settlement, the records of the lawsuit are sealed. This means that none of this evidence can be used to establish precedence in future lawsuits.
The lawsuits, therefore, excluded thousands of potential claimants since such cancers typically do not appear until ten to twenty years after exposure and health problems may not be limited to one generation. The progressive online magazine AlterNet estimated that by 2006, 20,000 had died, become ill, or had been born with birth defects because of their exposure to TCE on Tucson’s south side. Yolanda Herrera, who has been involved with the Unified Community Advisory Board (UCAB), a local organization in Tucson that has fought for citizen’s rights on issues of TCE for more than twenty years, says it’s impossible to know exact numbers since there’s been no systematic tracking of the health of those who lived in the area at the time. And the Air Force, which contracted with Hughes Aircraft, the company that operated the site in the 1950s through the 1980s, is still in litigation with the city of Tucson. They want to cut a deal with the city and “wash their hands of us,” says Herrera, but UCAB is fighting them. If they had their way, they’d hand the city a check and Tucson would have to continue the cleanup of the Superfund site itself.
Nationally, groundwater accounts for 95 percent of our freshwater resources. The state of Wyoming, assuming it will never need the water from its deep reservoirs, is allowing a uranium mine to inject more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste every day into those reservoirs. In North Dakota alone, fracking produces seventy-five tons of radioactive waste per day and one option for its disposal is to inject the wastewater sludge into wells about 6,000 to 8,500 feet below ground. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), different contaminants behave differently in groundwater and can move quickly, often polluting water several miles from the source. Yet the EPA has issued more than 1,500 permits for companies to pollute such aquifers in some of the driest regions of the United States.
The liver is a very tender and porous organ. Like a sieve, it filters all the toxins from the blood. Any doctor will tell you that although the liver is the one organ that can regenerate itself, you cannot live without it. When you get a virus like hepatitis C or you drink too much alcohol or you’re exposed to too many toxins, the liver becomes scarred or fibrous. The sieve gets clogged and so it can no longer filter the blood effectively. Eventually you might get cirrhosis or liver cancer. If the tumors from the cancer are in the lobes of the liver, they can often be ablated or removed. If the liver still starts to fail, you could be eligible for a transplant. But if, like in Fernando’s case, the tumor is in your portal vein, the vein that carries 75 percent of your blood to your liver, none of those treatments will work and a transplant is out of the question.
One of the first dreams I had about Fernando after he died was about water. I dreamed that I was washing his body. I had the huge aluminum bowl, the one that I used to mix masa in for tamales. It was the same bowl that we put near the bedside when someone felt sick. I had filled it with warm soapy water and dipped the cloth in the water, then rang it out. I washed his face first, just like I had done in the hospital after his surgery. When he closed his eyes, I washed his forehead and eyelids, and then the rest of his face and his mouth and his neck. I ran the cloth down over his arms, which were still strong in the dream, and his wrists, which had always been as thin as mine. I washed his hands, then his chest, still firm from all that hard work, and his stomach, which had more hair than I remembered but not much at all. I washed his penis, and his thighs, which were so white and which also hardly had any hair on them. Finally, I ran the cloth over his calves, which had so much hair that it looked like he had black socks on, and last, his feet. In the dream, it was Fernando’s bony feet that I saw most clearly: he had black hairs on his knobby toes. His little sisters used to joke that his feet looked like Jesus’s feet and even in the dream I remembered that and knew there was some kind of Christian symbolism going on. But what struck me was that I had not paid more attention to his body while he was alive, for it was his body, his physical presence, I missed most.
When Fernando’s liver started to fail, his abdomen swelled, a condition called ascites. This made him uncomfortable. It was difficult for him to sit without almost arching his back. When they drained this fluid from his abdomen, he said it was the color of coffee. When he ate, he always had indigestion. He felt weak, he was always tired. He said the chemo pills burned the palm of his hand as soon as they touched it. His skin was dry and papery; the whites of his eyes started to turn yellow. Once I start to turn yellow, he told me, I’ll have only a few days, a week, ten days at the most. That was when we called his brothers and sisters to say good-bye. They couldn’t believe the change. Some had seen him months earlier, some weeks, but he had looked fine. Soon, he began to drift, and fall asleep. He could no longer talk, though he seemed largely aware of what was going on. Because his liver could no longer remove toxins from this blood, the ammonia level was rising and would eventually go to his brain. Perhaps that was why he could no longer talk, why he drifted. The possibility of dementia from the ammonia scared me more than anything, and I knew it scared him, too. He no longer remembered how to move his legs. The simplest of things eluded him: how to eat, how to swallow. His legs were as solid as tree trunks, so full of fluid. His kidneys were failing, there was fluid in his lungs. It was hard for him to breathe. I could tell he knew what was happening, but I hoped he was dreaming anyway, seeing the faces of the people he loved most, and would have to leave. There were things he wanted to say. He raised his arms, trying to breathe.
Fernando wanted the doctors to document the exposure to TCE for his children, who drank the water when they visited their relatives, for me, for our relatives who still live on that side of town. Cancer is no longer unusual in families who have lived on the south side of Tucson, even families like Fernando’s, with no history of cancer in previous generations. Everyone knows the stories. Still, whenever Fernando would mention TCE to his doctors, they didn’t understand what he was talking about. They dismissed his questions. After all, they had their diagnosis: hepatitis C. Exposure to TCE would not change the treatment or prognosis. Fernando understood this. But, he reasoned, because they were scientists, shouldn’t they also consider other variables? Weren’t they even curious? But you can’t document that which you refuse to see. Or, as they say in Spanish: No hay nadie tan sordo que él que no escucha. There is no one so deaf as he who will not listen.
Fernando admired Craig Childs’s book so much that he kept buying it and giving it to others as a gift. He was born in the desert, and knew that water was sacred. When he met Childs at a reading and asked him to sign a copy, Childs wrote: “For Fernando. Keep this one. I’m serious. Hold it up in the rain. Drink out of it. It is yours.”
Beth Alvarado is the author of two books, Anthropologies: A Family Memoir (University of Iowa, 2011) and Not a Matter of Love and Other Stories (Many Voices Prize, New Rivers Press, 2006). Recent stories and essays have been published in The Sun, The Southern Review, The Collagist and the anthology, The Female Complaint: Tales of Unruly Women. For most of her life, she has lived in Tucson, Arizona, where she taught at the University of Arizona. This year, she is a visiting writer for OSU-Cascades’s low residency MFA program.