GASOLINE ALLEYDOWN BY THE OLD MILLSTREAM, IT STINKS

This is not how Art and Lynn Shupe envisioned their life in Arizona's White Mountains.

"Since all this happened with the company, we haven't had any life," Art Shupe says. "My place is about destroyed. We had this beautiful spring--clear as a pin--and the fish were pretty. The water was bluish. My grandkids used to pull out crawdads. We put in lots of fruit trees. My animals had the whole yard to live in. Then they leaked all this gas and diesel and stuff and ruined everything."

Shupe is a retired copper miner who works security at Stone Forest Industries in Eagar, about 210 miles northeast of Phoenix in rural Apache County. He has had a front-row seat for one of Arizona's least publicized and most expensive toxic-chemical disasters.

The Shupes' backyard smells like a gas station and their once-pristine waters look like Alaska's Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez passed through. A sign on the couple's padlocked backyard fence warns passers-by "KEEP OUT" and "NO SMOKING." That's because the poisoned soil can ignite with a match.

Until recently, in fact, the Shupes' backyard was officially deemed a "fire hazard," declared so in March and again in April by a state fire marshal. "How many people have ground that could burn up just like that?" asks Lynn Shupe, who sells fabric at an Eagar department store. "This isn't funny. This is sad."

STONE FOREST INDUSTRIES is a multinational paper company which had a net income in 1989 of $285.8 million. About 280 people work for the firm in Eagar, making it the town's largest employer.

The position Stone Forest occupies in Eagar may explain the imperious manner in which the company has handled the terrible situation with the Shupes. The couple's flammable soil and stinking creek result from the underground leakage of at least 25,000 gallons of gasoline and still-untold thousands of gallons of diesel from three of Stone Forest's storage tanks.

Stone Forest claims it discovered the leaks in August 1989. But Art Shupe says that as early as March 1989 he told a mill supervisor of horrendous gas smells in his subdivision, just below the sawmill and storage tanks.

Stone Forest never reported a thing to the proper authorities, court records indicate, and didn't act on the leaks until after those authorities learned of them from other sources.

The leaks haven't been big news in the Round Valley area that includes the adjoining towns of Eagar and Springerville. Reaction by the Eagar Town Council has been muted at best, with little public discussion. That's not surprising, considering Eagar's company-town nature. The outgoing mayor works for Stone Forest, and everyone in Round Valley knows how powerful the firm is.

"Stone has a tremendous impact on our economy," says Eagar town manager Will Wright. "We're a logging and power-generating community, and Stone is a large part of that."

The leaks were kept so quiet that Stone has so far managed to avoid criminal or civil sanctions. Assistant state attorney general Dave Ronald, who prosecutes environmental malefactors, says, "We never heard of this incident at our office until [Attorney General] Bob Corbin got a letter a week or so ago," Ronald says. "We plan to look into it." And, while toxic-chemical spills like Love Canal have been the stuff of screaming headlines elsewhere, just one story, and a puff piece at that, has appeared in the local White Mountain Independent.

Since the September 7 story, the paper hasn't reported about the $1 million civil lawsuit filed in January by the Shupes and their neighbors, Donald and Catherine Butsko, against Stone Forest Industries.

Despite the best efforts of almost everyone, the big spill finally did become public knowledge last August, after the state's environmental people got wind of it.

The suit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court by attorney Steven Cheifetz, alleges that Stone Forest was negligent "in the dumping of toxic waste materials, so that such materials were allowed to seep into the earth and water aquifers and to contaminate them with toxic chemicals."

Though Stone Forest has denied those allegations in court pleadings, the firm continues to keep its corporate mouth mostly shut. Says Gary Yantis, regional timber manager for the Timber Resources section of Stone Forest:

"We do have a story to tell, but I've been advised not to tell it at this time because of our pending lawsuit. Nothing was done intentionally. We're very concerned about this for several reasons. We live here too, you know."

The company has spent several hundred thousand dollars--it won't say exactly how much--to try to clean things up. Although Stone Forest says it has sealed the leak, massive amounts of gasoline and diesel are still working their way slowly through the ground toward the Shupes.

The final cleanup total will certainly be in the millions. No one seems to know how much surface water and groundwater have been polluted, though numerous tests of area drinking-water wells so far haven't turned up petroleum contaminants.

These days, the state's Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing Stone Forest's cleanup of the big leaks, which has proved to be an uphill struggle.

"Unfortunately, because of the severity of the leaks, it hasn't been an immediate corrective action," says Gail Clement, who heads a hydrology unit at DEQ. "The facility [Stone Forest] that caused the discharge is responsible to protect the surrounding population . . . Often, however, someone from a regulatory agency needs to prod a company into action."

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