Contaminated Splendor

Painted Rock Reservoir's beauty is deceiving. It's one of the most toxic sinkholes in America

This stretch of river between the 91st Avenue wastewater treatment plant and Estrella Mountain Park has become a very popular fishing area for immigrants and the poor. Other than posting a few warning signs along the river, the state has done little to discourage people from eating the fish and turtles taken from the stream.

"We don't monitor it very heavily," admits Larry Riley, chief of fisheries for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

State health and environmental officials say mostly poor Hispanics are routinely consuming aquatic wildlife from the river.

Only a few signs like this warn fishermen of dangerous DDT contamination.
aerial photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engine
Only a few signs like this warn fishermen of dangerous DDT contamination.

"We've seen people fishing right by the warning signs," says Humble. "When you talk to them about it, they say, 'It tastes all right.'"

While the fish may taste fine, the pesticide residues they contain can be hazardous, particularly to children and pregnant women. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality warns against consuming more than one eight-ounce meal every seven weeks.

"We certainly urge folks to adhere to the fish-consumption advisory," says Cortland Coleman, ADEQ spokesman.

Well, that's all fine and dandy, but few people directly affected know about the dangers of consuming fish from the Gila River because the state hasn't alerted the public properly.

State health and environmental officials need to immediately step up efforts to inform consumers of the hazardous conditions along the Gila River -- including even banning fishing in the area.

Otherwise, this appears to be a classic case of environmental racism where the poor and minorities are subjected to dangerous conditions they know little if anything about.

I'm saying, the state cannot merely post a few signs along the river warning about the dangers and walk away.

During my drive along the Gila last week, I found only two warning signs. Officials say many of the signs posted in the past have been shot up, run over or defaced. Well, replace them! And put up more.

But the signs should only be the first step.

The state should mount a massive public-education campaign, including repeated television and newspaper advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers. The state should also conduct far more extensive outreach into the Hispanic community, including holding a series of public meetings about the pesticide contamination of the river.

It is also time for Arizona's health, environmental and agricultural officials to reconsider their hands-off approach to monitoring the long-term health effects of DDE-laced milk on Arizona consumers. This appears to be an effort by state officials to simply ignore the persistent contamination of the food supply to protect the powerful dairy industry.

We have the right to know with as much scientific certainty as possible what DDE-laced milk is doing to our children. The scientific evidence is mixed, but there are troubling indications that DDE and toxaphene residues may be causing serious health problems.

The state should conduct studies to determine what's happening health-wise to residents of new housing developments built on old cotton fields that were repeatedly bombed with DDT in the 1950s and 1960s. Thousands of homes are put up every year on farmland west of Phoenix, and residents have no idea that they are moving onto potentially poisoned ground.

University of Arizona scientists found DDT and DDE residues to a depth of 18 inches in the soil in a 1985 study. This research needs to be updated.

It is shameful that one of the most visually scenic stretches of waterway in central Arizona is one of the most polluted in the nation. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to remove the pesticides from the soil other than letting time take its course.

Still, this dreadful experience spanning nearly half a century should not be swept aside as merely a footnote in Arizona's history. The state must take action to protect not only its citizens, but anybody else -- including poor immigrants.

There is nothing more precious in the desert than water. What does it say about our governments if they cater to business interests to the point that they don't properly inform an unsuspecting public that scarce desert water is polluted to the point of no return?

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