DISASTER RESPONSE

Scientist Mackay sees it differently. If citizens grasped the simple fact that current technology can't do the job, they might pressure the government to perfect "more promising technologies," he says.

Informed citizens might also help forge the answers to questions plaguing Ed Fox and other regulators, questions that have yet to be resolved: If cleanup drags on for centuries, who pays? Should polluting industries be asked to pay money into a trust fund that would ensure water cleanup for future generations? How much will cleanup ultimately cost?

"The public should be aware that this is a tricky problem, and they're not," Mackay says.

The experience of Velma Dunn and the homeowners around the Motorola 52nd Street semiconductor factory is a case in point.

In 1982 Motorola itself reported to the state that a storage tank on the 52nd Street property was leaking TCA, an industrial degreaser that is not terribly toxic. But it didn't take long for Motorola and the state to learn that TCA wasn't really the problem.

The groundwater was poisoned with a far more dangerous industrial solvent--the suspected human carcinogen TCE. TCE readings beneath the plant were among the highest in the United States. None of the contaminated water near the 52nd Street plant had been tapped for public drinking-water supplies. But in 1984, a private well near the plant exceeded by 1,554 times the federal health standard for TCE in drinking water. Officials have always worried that the contamination, which is so vast it has yet to be completely charted, might one day infect clean drinking-water supplies. The plume from Motorola snakes westward into the eastern edge of one of the Valley's most productive underground water supplies. Sections of that aquifer are currently being used for drinking water.

In 1987, five years after the contamination was first discovered, Velma Dunn began her campaign to assemble the land into a real estate package. In those five years, she does not recall seeing a single newspaper article or watching one broadcast that warned of the widespread contamination.

From 1987 to 1991, she attended scores of meetings with zoning officials, city councilmembers, neighborhood leaders, real estate investors.

In those four years, despite countless meetings with Motorola's neighbors and Valley civic leaders, Velma Dunn says not a single person told her that the vast plume lurked beneath the very homes she hoped to sell.

Velma Dunn insists over and over that if she had known that the plume extended beneath the homes, she certainly would not have devoted four years of her life to putting the package together.

When she learned of the contamination in the summer of 1991, she tried to become informed. Armed with a portable copy machine, Dunn and neighborhood leaders copied public records detailing the contamination.

Within months, it was Velma Dunn--not Motorola, not state and federal regulators and not the media--who informed the neighbors that the TCE might never be cleaned out of the aquifer.

How could this come to pass?
How could a reasonably well-informed businesswoman remain ignorant for ten years of an environmental disaster that so directly affected her project? How could Velma Dunn's clients insist that they were equally uninformed?

And how is it that so shortly after she became aware of the magnitude of the contamination that Velma Dunn became the person to inform concerned residents that the pollution might never be completely cleaned up?

Why didn't the government get the word out?
Why didn't Motorola?
Why didn't the press?

The answer begins with the fact that once the contamination was discovered, state regulators entrusted with protecting the groundwater turned over the responsibility for the collection and analysis of environmental data to Motorola's consultants. This was not an unusual practice elsewhere in America, but it became questionable in Arizona when regulators did not check the data for quality. Next, the regulators allowed Motorola's consultants to take over all official communications with citizens.

This was a situation rife with potential for conflict of interest, and in 1991 the state resumed responsibility for informing the public.

But for six years, the state and EPA permitted Motorola to take the lead in telling the public of the consequences of the contamination.

With the regulators and regulated in lock step, the public's last hope for an independent look at one of America's worst groundwater disasters rested with the media.

But the press, including this newspaper, was less than vigilant in its coverage of the extensive pollution linked to the state's largest employer.

Left to their own devices, citizens did not understand the problem until realtor Velma Dunn stumbled into it.

The community's outrage over not being sufficiently informed is one reason thousands of citizens, including Velma Dunn, last year filed two class-action lawsuits against Motorola. The plaintiffs charge that the pollution caused poor health and a decline in real estate values. Motorola has denied the charges.

as the sleepy neighborhoods near the Motorola plant on 52nd Street and McDowell wake up to the pollution beneath them, residents are beginning to ask a critical question.

Why did the state abdicate its responsibility to inform the public to Motorola's consultants, Dames and Moore, from early 1985 to late 1991?

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