DISASTER RESPONSE

For three years in the mid-1980s, journalist Kathleen Stanton reported the Motorola story for the Arizona Republic.

Stanton's stories were often critical of Motorola for not stating the severity of the contamination in the face of reports that showed the extent of the plume. Also, at the very time Motorola was pointing fingers at other industries (such as the Air National Guard) as potential TCE polluters, Stanton interviewed a former Motorola worker who remembered dumping TCE on the Motorola semiconductor plant property.

Now a freelancer in Tucson, Stanton says Dames and Moore "would never go to a community to give it bad news."

Because Motorola has always been viewed as a "benign and much-needed pillar of the Valley community," Stanton says, it was difficult for any reporter to convince an editor that spending time researching Motorola was more than a "fringy leftist witch hunt." Frank Lopez, who was city editor of the Arizona Republic at the time Stanton wrote most of her stories, says the "witch hunt" charge is unfounded. There was never any pressure from either Motorola or the editors to not write the stories. But he adds that environmental stories are not a favorite among editors--they are "perceived as being" boring by editors and readers alike.

There was "never, never, never, never" an editorial decision to play down stories on Motorola because of its prominent position in the community, echoes Richard Robertson, who became the newspaper's city editor in 1985.

Stanton stopped working on the story intensively in 1985, shortly before the controversy over aquifer cleanup erupted. She was assigned instead to cover the state's efforts to pass environmental laws. Following Stanton's transfer to other beats, the story receded even further into the background. When it was covered, it was often reported by less-experienced journalists for the weekly "community," or zoned, sections of the dailies.

For a brief time, Keith Bagwell, a reporter for a small daily in Scottsdale, tried to tell the story on a sporadic basis. But Bagwell's editors were not interested in a problem that didn't directly affect Scottsdale. Bagwell, now an environmental reporter in Tucson, remembers being frustrated that no other reporter seemed interested in the story he thought was so significant.

To date, the fact that this particular aquifer might never be cleansed of TCE has not been reported in the state's dailies.

The electronic media has provided bland and disjointed coverage of the complex story. Television news directors from all three networks say their stations have probably not given the story the coverage it deserves. Al Macias, executive editor of KPNX-TV, an NBC affiliate, says coverage has picked up since citizens began calling the station with story ideas about a year ago. Indeed, neither print nor television reporters were willing to tackle such a difficult story. "It's a terribly complex story and not an easy one to tell," says one TV news reporter. "You get lost in a morass of chemistry and organic compounds and statistical probabilities. Let's face it. The public's eyes glaze over."

for at least five years, there has been a potentially explosive debate within the scientific community over the inability of modern technology to remove chlorinated solvents like TCE from the nation's underground water supplies. "In my experience, the public thinks that if we can fly to the moon we ought to be able to get a few chemicals out of groundwater," says scientist Doug Mackay. The problem, he says, is that underground geology is far more complex than scientists originally envisioned ten years ago. Who could have guessed, for instance, that in sites like Motorola 52nd Street, TCE can sink into fractures in bedrock and stay there, slowly dissolving into the aquifer?

"The public is unaware that once aquifers are contaminated we are limited by the laws of nature," says Mackay.

Mackay serves on a National Research Council committee to evaluate pump-and-treat technology, the preferred technology for removing TCE from groundwater. The "major findings are pretty clear already," he says. Pump-and-treat cannot clean many aquifers, especially those with high concentrations of solvents in fractured bedrock.

Unfortunately, just one teaspoon of TCE will render 250,000 gallons of groundwater unfit for drinking, health officials say. TCE is suspected of causing leukemia, as well as disorders of the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

The "pump-and-treat" technology was supposed to remove chemicals like TCE from the nation's water supplies.

The technology pumps groundwater from the earth and shoots it through an air-stripping tower. TCE and other similar chemicals escape into the air and are captured in a filter. The water is then fit for drinking.

There are two problems with pump-and-treat technology. First, it does not reach into fractures in the bedrock, where some chemicals hide. Second, when the groundwater is pumped out, much of the TCE remains in the aquifer, glued to particles of sand and rock.

"Pump-and-treat" technology has been selected by the state and EPA as a "partial remedy" to help "clean up" the Motorola 52nd Street aquifer. Water that is pumped and treated is used for manufacturing in the plant. It is then discharged into the city sewer.

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