Arizona's Worst Neighbor

People are sick and animals are dying near TRW's air-bag plant in Mesa.

It's the home movie from hell.

Astrida "Bunny" Bertleson pushes the play button on her big-screen TV in the living room of her home near Queen Creek.

As casually as one would say, "This is my Uncle John" or "That's our kitty Whiskers" while screening such a video, she explains some of the tragic scenes that appear.

Crystal, a bay Arabian mare, stands in a pasture. A closer shot reveals strange swelling on her side. "We didn't know what it was," Bertleson says.

A dead gander is shown, splayed out face down in his pen. A goose stands near him, honking loudly. "He was a beautiful bird."

Misty, a black mare that Bertleson calls "my dream horse," is shown wearing strange horseshoes. "We tried those on all the horses so they could walk and be comfortable, and so we wouldn't totally lose them."

Max, a German shepherd, is shown on the farm. "He was the most incredible dog," says Bertleson. "He started bleeding from the nose and died."

Emkay Firebelle, another Arabian mare, walks gingerly on new shoes aimed at saving her life. "She was a show horse. She was improving there." Crystal appears again, barely able to walk because of degeneration of bones in her legs. "We were so hopeful with her because she was so young," Bertleson says.

It's a brief, shocking sampling of a long list of bizarre things that have happened in Bertleson's neighborhood since TRW Vehicle Safety Systems Inc. -- an air bag manufacturing plant -- opened 10 years ago.

And Bertleson's got a cabinet full of such videos -- a sometimes macabre chronicle of strange things she's witnessed since she started taping six years ago. Her films are often shaky, amateur efforts, but the images on them are clearly disturbing.

Plants and trees show signs of being burned, sometimes entirely or section by section. Trunks are twisted, branches are blackened while others are green. Strangely formed mesquite pods (one like a miniature bunch of bananas) are interspersed among normal ones.

Frames show heartbreaking shots of Bertleson's Arabians barely able to walk, legs buckling, taking an excruciatingly long time to take even one step into a stall. There are pictures of hideous skin conditions on the horses, bulbous growths on the feet of a chicken, scenes of a pet dog listless and bleeding from his paws, dead field mice and birds littering the ground.

A cottontail bunny with paralyzed back legs drags them as he attempts to hop, a rooster topples forward repeatedly while trying to stand, his hind legs suddenly crippled, a tiny newborn pheasant cheeps plaintively while his paralyzed back legs are displayed for the camera.

And there are scenes of white, gray, even orange clouds drifting through the neighborhood, some pluming high into the sky, others lying low and traveling right over Bertleson's horse arena. One night she got shots of smoke pouring from the TRW plant while a fire burned for hours.

When Bunny and Arlen Bertleson moved to their little ranch in 1986, it was to be the last move for them. Tired of moving because of her husband's job transfers, Bertleson was looking forward to putting down roots, spending her time raising Arabian horses, writing books and watching her grandchildren grow.

It was to be Bertleson's ultimate sanctuary, a permanent home for someone who had been violently uprooted in her earliest years. Born in the Baltic country of Latvia, she had lived under Stalin and Hitler and had hidden from the KGB with her family in the forest as she witnessed torture and death before a frightening escape from the war-torn country.

Bertleson says her neighborhood near Ellsworth and Pecos roads was a quiet, undeveloped area with pristine desert all around, state trust land to the east and plenty of clear skies, natural vegetation and wildlife. The Bertlesons hoped to build a second home on the property for their married daughter and her family, creating a family compound where the grandchildren would have a taste of country life.

But the fairy tale plans took an ugly turn soon after TRW opened its air-bag plant.

Foul smells and strange clouds would waft over their neighborhood. Trees and bushes and animals began to get sick or die. And the Bertlesons themselves started feeling ill, particularly on days when there were fires or explosions at the TRW plant less than two miles away.

But this time, Bunny Bertleson wasn't going to flee. She dug in, determined to stand and fight.

The TRW plant southwest of Bertleson's home manufactures a product designed to save lives. But Bertleson and a group of her neighbors who are suing the company in U.S. District Court believe the Fortune 500 firm -- a $17 billion company that is the leading maker of auto restraint systems in the United States -- has caused death, disease and destruction in surrounding areas.

Bertleson believes sodium azide, the deadly chemical used to inflate the air bags, and hydrazoic acid, a lethal gas formed when the chemical mixes with water, are among the most dangerous substances that have escaped in emissions, fires and explosions at the plant.

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