Risky Business

A former employee says Maricopa County is better at covering up than cleaning up its environmental hazards. And that could get the county in trouble for financial fraud--again.

The e-mails show that breakdowns in safety and the possible spread of diseases at the medical examiner's office were known to county officials--yet when an employee complained of those same problems to the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health in 1995, the county kept quiet. ADOSH didn't find the violations, and the county escaped any fines. However, a just-released internal report says the problems still existed in the office as recently as February.

The county won't talk about whether it has dealt with the numerous problems listed in the e-mails, or if it's properly reported hazards to employees or regulatory agencies. Smith's letter to New Times says only that "Maricopa County is currently prioritizing the remediation of known asbestos problems while continuing to identify potential new problems."

Maricopa County is largely self-regulating on these issues. There are requirements to inform employees of remodeling which might release asbestos, and other hazards, but it's up to the county's environmental services staff to enforce those regulations. There is no requirement for Maricopa County to inform ADEQ, OSHA or the EPA of air quality or asbestos problems at all.

If employees or citizens--county court personnel, people called to jury duty, patients in the hospital--have been exposed to asbestos or other hazards without proper notification, the county could have more environmental liabilities to report in its next annual statement. And in an age where scalding coffee costs millions in court, Maricopa County's numbers could get even bigger.

How the county plans to pay for cleaning up its messes has also been a subject of debate. For the past four years, the county has tried to fund its environmental liabilities through its Self-Insurance Trust Fund. But it's allowed the amount of money in the trust to drop--from about $50 million four years ago to $20 million at the end of this fiscal year.

That means money is already tight to pay for other claims against the county, let alone its toxic problems. Which is why the fund's trustees have decided to split off environmental claims from the self-insured trust.

This year, the county plans to pay for environmental costs through the general fund--which means environmental cleanups are now a part of the regular budget. The county has budgeted only $1.5 million for these costs. (This amount is not listed anywhere on the county's tentative budget; county spokesman Scott Celley says it's lumped in under the general government fund.)

The county won't say if $1.5 million is enough to pay for all the landfills, toxic-waste sites and hazardous materials on its property.

That's only half what the county spent on environmental problems from June 1995 to September 1996, according to county records.

As those figures demonstrate, environmental problems can get expensive quickly. Still, county administrator David Smith, in his letter to New Times, says that the county is "thoroughly committed to addressing its environmental responsibilities in order to protect public health, safety and welfare, while at the same time acting as a prudent steward of public monies."

Michael Walters, obviously, disagrees. Having spent several years dealing with the county's risks, he sees big problems ahead--which will only get worse if the county doesn't address them.

But worrying about environmental risks isn't his job anymore. After years of helping the county clean up after itself, he's now protecting his own interests. And he says he's prepared for the fight.

"I always assume, of course because I'm an optimist, that the truth will set me free," Walters says. "Someday, four years from now, a jury will find that Maricopa County, pardon my French, fucked me, and I'll be restored to my previous level of credibility and all those good things. But the ensuing four years does not look pretty.

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