Mom on a mission

Local woman nationally recognized for protesting roof-tarring project

Last fall, Shelby Rodriguez took a stand against a roof-tarring project in her apartment complex. This year, she’s in People magazine.

Last fall, Shelby Rodriguez took a stand against a roof-tarring project in her apartment complex. This year, she’s in People magazine.

Photo By anne stokes

One afternoon this past September, as Shelby Rodriguez walked her daughter home from school, she saw roofers working in the Antelope rental-housing complex where she lives. She panicked.

“I stood there like I was going to have a standoff with them,” she said.

Ultimately, Rodriguez, 33, continued on home with her daughter, Elise. She returned the next day to investigate, fearing she would smell fumes and see an asphalt kettle at the site of the roof repairs—a flashback to the nausea and dizziness she’d experienced when she first moved into the complex last year. Instead, she saw rolls of Thermoplastic Olefin, or TPO, an eco-friendly roofing product. Rodriguez finally felt at peace, but only because action sometimes speak louder than words.

Since the summer of 2008, Rodriguez has campaigned to stop the roof-tarring project at The Arbors housing complex. People magazine featured the mom turned activist in a recent article. Last month, the environmental health advocacy group Healthy Child Healthy World presented Rodriguez with its first Mom on a Mission award during a star-studded event in Beverly Hills. Her husband nominated her for the award and sent in her story, which SN&R broke last January (“Left Fuming,” SN&R Frontlines, January 1).

The nonprofit organization flew her family to Southern California, where Rodriguez was treated to professional hair and makeup and a fancy dress. Arianna Huffington, Jessica Capshaw and Steven Spielberg were also in attendance.

“I was trying to be like Carrie Bradshaw and enjoy the moment,” Rodriguez said, referencing a character from one of her favorite shows, Sex and the City. But she was pretty nervous. It’s been a long, emotional journey.

Her concerns about roof tarring began the day she moved into The Arbors, when she began to feel nauseous and dizzy. Earlier, she’d noticed workers tarring houses with asphalt. She smelled fumes. After two weeks of roof repair nearby, she developed a sore throat, sores in her nose and a persistent cough. Her doctor diagnosed her with intermittent asthma and put her on inhalers.

“I was really putting up with it, but when Elise started getting symptoms, I said ‘OK, that’s enough,’” Rodriguez said.

The Arbors, located at the old Capehart base housing for McClellan Air Force Base off Watt Avenue, includes about 500 homes, a recreation center and an elementary school. By the time Rodriguez had moved into the complex, the majority of the houses had been tarred and the three-year roofing project was nearing its end. The project drew the concern of the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District because of the frequency of the tar application and long duration of the work.

According to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in response to requests for technical assistance made by Rodriguez, asphalt contains thousands of chemical compounds, including bitumens, named on California’s Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing agents. The chemical has also been linked to birth defects in laboratory animals and organ-system damage.

This information upset Rodriguez. After speaking with several other residents who had experienced similar respiratory problems, she circulated a petition—gathering some 150 signatures—passed out fliers to neighbors and filed complaints with SMAQMD. A few months later, Carmel Partners, who own The Arbors, halted the roofing project.

“When you have the facts and pester the heck out of people, they will eventually listen to you and take notice,” Rodriguez said.

But she didn’t just pester and complain: She offered an alternative. She suggested Carmel Partners opt for TPO roofs. This nontoxic material is made of rubber and plastic and is applied as a single-ply membrane, which means the product doesn’t have to be applied with hot mops or asphalt. TPO is light in color and reflects heat in the summer.

Now Rodriguez is focusing on volunteering with the American Lung Association and preparing to student teach. She’s also ready for any other environmental health campaign she might have to tackle.

“I learned about the power that one person can have,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not some extraordinary person. I was just really dedicated and passionate.”