By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
@body:The Motorola Government Electronics practice of back-billing environmental expenses to the Department of Defense is only one way pollution costs are bankrolled by unsuspecting taxpayers in Arizona and across the nation, New Times has learned during a months-long investigation. In the waning days of the current Bush Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency has quietly begun to change national Superfund policy in a move that threatens to foist more and more cleanup costs on citizens. (See the related story on page 22.) In the face of troubling new scientific evidence, the new Superfund policy is a dramatic departure from the basic Superfund concept that the polluters--not taxpayers--pay for cleanup.
Ten years ago, regulators entrusted with protecting Arizona's groundwater said that TCE and similar chemicals could be removed within a decade or two from the aquifers polluted by Motorola and other companies. (Aquifers are spongy layers of soil and gravel that hold groundwater.)
Regulators also asserted that Motorola would be forced to pay the bill for its pollution at the north Indian Bend Wash Superfund site in Scottsdale, and the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund site in Phoenix, where some of the highest TCE readings in groundwater in the United States have been reported.
These days regulators can't promise that TCE will be removed from the aquifers beneath Motorola in 20 years. In fact, they debate whether current technology can ever cleanse TCE from aquifers.
The only bright spot is that groundwater itself, once it is pumped out of the aquifers, can be cleansed to federal drinking-water standards and stored elsewhere.
But because of the physical nature of TCE, the contaminated aquifers themselves are likely to remain polluted for centuries, soiling all water that trickles into them.
A groundbreaking 1991 study by scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory--reported earlier in this series--details the failure of modern science to cleanse aquifers of TCE and other similar chemicals. In a separate 1991 report, Cost Growth for Treatment Technologies at NPL Sites, the same Oak Ridge scientists say the EPA's projected costs of "cleaning up" Superfund sites were far too low.
This is because the EPA had mistakenly predicted cleanup times of 2 to 30 years, says the report, which was obtained by New Times. "Time frames of 100 to 1,000 years have been suggested by leading groundwater scientists as more appropriate projections for complex sites, if aquifer restoration is achievable at all," the report says.
Confronted with contamination that might last centuries instead of decades, federal authorities have begun to revamp the Superfund cleanup in a way that will relieve the financial pressure on industrial polluters.
The technical challenges of aquifer cleanup have set off a new series of troubling, potentially explosive debates in Arizona as regulators rethink how they will handle the mushrooming costs of polluted groundwater. The Motorola sites are central to the new set of debates, which will determine who really pays the unprecedented expense of groundwater pollution.
ùThe Department of Water Resources (DWR), the agency entrusted with preserving groundwater for our children and grandchildren to drink, favors forcing polluters to finance the massive and immediate cleansing of groundwater and the reinjection of that water into clean sections of the aquifer. Under this philosophy, the polluters would pay as much as possible at the front end, saving citizens expenses down the road.
ùThe Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the agency charged with policing groundwater cleanup, is moving toward the new national Superfund plan. The agency's director says the DWR approach is too expensive for polluters. ùWhile the officials argue, the TCE contamination is spreading and, in Phoenix, becoming more of a threat to human health. Some of the TCE spilled from the Motorola 52nd Street semiconductor factory has degraded into vinyl chloride, a chemical known to cause cancer in humans.
ùThere also is a continuing debate among water officials over whether the aquifer polluted by Motorola 52nd Street will be tapped during a severe drought. Phoenix drought planners have essentially written off the aquifer contaminated with extensive TCE pollution, saying this groundwater will not be needed in dry cycles; state officials disagree, saying the aquifer is vital during a severe dry spell. These same state officials warn that making contaminated water safe for consumption is costly.
"Having polluted groundwater is like having no groundwater unless citizens are willing to incur the high cost to treat it at the wellhead," says Herb Dishlipp, deputy director for water management at the Department of Water Resources. "If groundwater is contaminated and you need to use it in time of drought, it will be very expensive."
Central to all of these debates are the same disturbing questions.
Who will ultimately pay for the TCE disaster in the groundwater beneath the Valley, especially if it takes hundreds of years? Who will pay to clean up polluted groundwater pumped out of public wells if the Valley is hit by an unexpected drought such as the one in Los Angeles?
Will the polluters pay?
Or the citizens?
@body:Hundred-year droughts have always brought disaster to the Salt River Valley.
They are called "hundred-year droughts" because they are of such severity that they have only a 1 percent chance of occurrence in any given year.