PRISCILLA ROBINSON | 1931-2013

Priscilla Robinson dies; conservationist fought pollution, protected water

2013-07-30T00:00:00Z 2014-07-15T17:48:32Z Priscilla Robinson dies; conservationist fought pollution, protected waterTony Davis Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
July 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Priscilla Robinson, who virtually invented modern-day environmentalism in Tucson, died Monday at age 82.

Robinson was intimately involved in passage of most of the key environmental laws and regulations here and statewide in the 1970s and '80s. She died at University of Arizona Medical Center following a brief lung illness.

She advised then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt on drafting the pioneering Groundwater Management Act of 1980, ushering in statewide groundwater supply regulation. Six years later, she lobbied hard for the Environmental Quality Act, which created the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the statewide groundwater protection program. She remained active in water issues until recent-ly, working on a city-county water-wastewater report that came out in this decade.

She was instrumental in creating Catalina State Park and city and county floodplain laws, successfully fought local freeways and helped shut down the aging Douglas copper smelter. It had been operated by Phelps Dodge Corp. near the Mexican border for decades without pollution controls until closing in the late 1980s.

Robinson built a reputation as a consummate pragmatist, who, recalled former state Rep. Larry Hawke of Tucson, was not one to let pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good. A partisan Democrat, she worked closely with Republicans and Democrats to get laws passed.

"She knew what she was doing," said longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, who hired Robinson to her first environmental job back in the mid-1970s as director of the Southwest Environmental Service. "She was never an ideologue. She knew how to compromise to get things done. She was candid and honest, what you wanted in a lobbyist - someone who would not pull the wool over your eyes."

"She was strong on fact and short on ideology," echoed Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, with whom Robinson often worked closely - and occasionally against - over four decades.

In Robinson's heyday, "She had more intuitive sense about Arizona politics than anyone I knew," added Bill Roe, the state Democratic Party chairman and a longtime Tucson conservationist.

Born in Berkeley, Calif., Robinson graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in anthropology. In the 1950s, she worked as a state social worker on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. She and William Robinson, who later became a pioneering University of Arizona tree-ring researcher, married in 1957, moved to Erie, Pa., for five years and returned in 1962. Her husband survives her, as do a son, Peter Robinson of Mingus, Colo., a daughter, Betsey Robinson of Tucson, and four grandchildren.

In the late 1960s and early '70s as a Planned Parenthood lobbyist, she pushed legislation loosening state abortion restrictions. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court made her efforts moot by outlawing most state abortion restrictions in the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, recalled Bryan Howard, who knew Robinson. Again, many of her efforts' biggest backers were Republican legislators, including Sandra Day O'Connor, later a Supreme Court justice, Howard recalled.

The roots of her social and environmental activism came in her Indian social work, recalled Howard and Cynthia Henry, a longtime friend.

"It was there that she saw the intersection of population and poverty," Howard recalled. "She would tell me great stories of working in Northern Arizona, traveling by pickup truck as a young single woman, driving to work on the Hopi reservation in the days before I-17 existed. All of those pieces came together in her mind."

When she took over Southwest Environmental Service, the environmental movement was quiet here, in contrast to the half-dozen or more groups with paid staffs here today, Roe said.

But Robinson's strong grasp of technical details made her successful, recalled Huckelberry and others. She "thought outside the box," added Roe, using the smelter conflict as an example.

"It was the single greatest producer of sulfur dioxide west of the Mississippi. You could trace the plume of that plant by the asthma cases in children," Roe recalled. Yet when she went to testify about the smelter at a Washington, D.C., hearing, she hammered at the point that it was unfair to new copper companies facing federal pollution controls to have to compete against Phelps Dodge, which didn't have to pay for such controls, Roe said.

"By the time she got back to a hotel room, she had presidents of two copper companies show up," Roe recalled. "They wanted her to use that point as an argument for their benefit."

Memorial services are pending.

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@azstarnet.com or 806-7746.

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