Phoenix's negligence left hundreds sick from toxic fumes. It's only a matter of time before it happens again.

About four million gallons of contaminated water ran into six wells surrounding Central Garden's warehouse and into a key storm drain for south Phoenix. Those wells serve as drinking water for the people of south Phoenix. City and state officials failed to dam the water as required in chemical fires.

Several animals, including family pets, died after drinking the runoff.

At 10 p.m., the fire broke through into an adjacent pharmaceutical company. Highly toxic chemotherapy drugs ignited in the pharmaceutical warehouse.

The remains of Central Garden's warehouse after the fire.
The remains of Central Garden's warehouse after the fire.
Flora Muldrow's neighbor, Leslie Nelson, developed cancer after the Central Garden fire.
Flora Muldrow's neighbor, Leslie Nelson, developed cancer after the Central Garden fire.

The fire burned until 4 the next morning.

ADEQ officials sent air samples from the fire to a laboratory in California for analysis. According to documents obtained by New Times, though, ADEQ officials ordered tests only for hydrocarbons typically released in standard, non-hazardous-materials fires.

Then, on August 7, clearly aware that testing was incomplete, ADEQ officials issued a press release stating there was no "public health concern" from the fire to the residents of south Phoenix.

At the time, ADEQ hadn't even received test results of the runoff water. Those tests weren't evaluated by ADEQ until a month later.

In a September 11, 2000, internal memo obtained by New Times, ADEQ's water-quality division director presented then-ADEQ director Jacqueline Schafer with a much less rosy picture of the Central Garden fire's impact on the neighborhood.

"Sixteen pesticides were detected in either or both samples," wrote water-quality director Chuck Graf in the internal memo. "Of those, seven were found above published levels for drinking water."

The water was also found to contain arsenic at more than 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water. Nitrate levels also were extremely high.

South Phoenix residents say they were never told about those test results. They say that Arizona Department of Health Services officials also kept them in the dark about the potential health impacts of the fire.

And as city and state officials told the public there was no health hazard from the fire, city fire officials were ordering firemen involved in fighting the fire to turn in their boots and other gear for fear of contamination. The gear was found to be full of high levels of toxic chemicals including phenol and pyrene. Older leather boots were found to hold the most contaminants. The city issued new gear to the firemen.

However, city or state officials never informed residents of south Phoenix that their clothes or leather shoes may also be toxic.

To those suffering mysterious illnesses, it appeared city and state officials hid critical information from them.

After the fire was extinguished, ADEQ then turned over control of the site to the managers of Central Garden.

That final mistake led to yet another disaster.

Once the fire stopped smoldering, Central Garden officials discovered that much of their chlorine had survived beneath the charred remains of the building.

ADEQ officials told Central Garden owners to get the chlorine removed from the site as quickly as possible.

On August 10, ADEQ officials informed Central Garden that the remaining chlorine was still emitting hazardous amounts of gas. It needed to be taken care of immediately.

Central Garden drafted a protocol for the chlorine's removal that was okayed by ADEQ officials. On August 11, Central Garden employees boxed the waste chlorine in cardboard boxes and placed it in a refrigerated truck trailer next to the burned building.

New Times obtained documents showing that a company supervisor planned to sell the waste chlorine to a local pool company for several thousand dollars.

He didn't get a chance to sell it.

Around midnight, the trailer ignited in flames.

Beginning at 1:30 a.m., south Phoenix residents, including Flora Muldrow, began calling city officials complaining of a heavy chlorine smell in their homes.

The wind that evening carried the smoke toward the northwest.

By 2:30 a.m., residents as far west as 16th Street were calling to complain about the fumes.

This smaller fire was put out by 3:30 a.m.

Still, once again, the damage had been done.

"I woke up at 2:05 a.m. and screamed, Oh my God, the house is on fire!'" Flora Muldrow says. "I couldn't see my hand in front of me, the smoke was so thick. I just wonder what would have happened if I hadn't woke up."

In the two years since the twin fires at Central Garden, Flora and Samuel Muldrow have lost many neighbors. Leslie Nelson, their next-door neighbor, died two months ago of a rare cancer. In the next house down, both the husband and wife died of cancer. "Nine or 10" have died just this year in the neighborhood, she says.

The Muldrows would like to move from their contaminated neighborhood. The problem is: Everybody knows it's a contaminated neighborhood.

"Everybody knows this place is a death trap," Flora says. "Nobody wants to buy a house that's going to kill them."

Bob Khan, assistant fire chief and spokesman for the Phoenix Fire Department, knows there is a problem with how the city and state respond to hazardous-waste emergencies.

He has often walked into fires in which he had no idea what was burning.

"Some companies have used our lack of resources to their advantage," Khan says. "If somebody wants to cheat, it's still virtually impossible for us to stop them."

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