A YEAR INSIDE THE MOTOROLA MESSSINNERS AND VICTIMS--WARRIORS AND REGULATORS
Thirteen months ago, Kathleen Stanton handed me a blue vinyl three-ring notebook.
Kathleen, a reporter and co-worker I count as a friend, had been cleaning out her office. She was leaving Phoenix, moving on to a university job in a different town.
I knew Kathleen had always meant to do an investigative piece on illnesses among high-tech workers. She never really had the time to develop the project, though, because she had several beats.
The blue three-ring binder she handed to me that day had been part of her research. It belonged to a former Motorola worker.
Kathleen Stanton knew that if she gave me any of her material for uncompleted projects, I'd roll my eyes and sigh and throw the binder in some corner and then pitch it in the trash after she was gone.
Which is probably why she said: "This is important, don't throw it away."
Okay, okay, Kathleen.
Inside the notebook, which belonged to a woman named Dolores Springer, were the names of people who had worked for the company, and had since fallen sick.
Mostly out of blind duty to Kathleen, I paid Dolores Springer a visit in January 1992. Dolores, a young mother, is crippled with an autoimmune disorder.
Dolores struck me as a sincere, honest person who simply wondered if her tenure on Motorola's assembly lines had caused her disease.
I didn't know the answer then, and I still don't know today.
But I was touched enough by her story to take a look at environmental records relating to the Motorola Superfund sites in Phoenix and Scottsdale.
There were thousands of pages of public documents--ten years' worth. It was remarkable to me that there had been so little news coverage of massive TCE contamination in two separate aquifers in the Valley.
After just a few hours, it was evident that this newspaper needed to examine how city, state and federal regulators had dealt with severe and extensive groundwater contamination they themselves had linked to Motorola, the state's largest employer.
I didn't want to write the story Kathleen Stanton had in mind when she gave me the notebook.
Nor was I out to write a breaking news expos about events that happened ten years ago.
I chose instead to write an explanatory piece that looked at political, medical and economic aspects of groundwater pollution in a desert city--areas that had inexplicably not been probed before.
What ended up happening was that the reporting for the first story organically led us to ask more questions. Before we knew it, we had sketched out a series that involved a year of my life.
We uncovered new "risk-based" federal Superfund policy that could be disastrous for Arizona. We discovered that Motorola bills the Department of Defense for some of its Superfund cleanup costs. We learned that current technology may not purge aquifers of TCE for centuries, despite state and federal regulators' assurances that "cleanups" are progressing well.
We reported that the federal government itself had associated TCE with various health problems--leukemia, disorders of the central nervous system and kidneys--and that the University of Arizona had linked TCE to heart defects in newborn babies. We discovered that in the Valley, there was a sharp increase in pediatric heart defects.
Despite the problems with TCE, there have been few health studies of the area. And we interviewed nationally known experts who concluded that federal health assessments and state statistical studies of the Superfund sites were cursory and incomplete.
We interviewed dozens of people with diseases that have been associated with TCE who still wonder if their illnesses had been caused by exposure to the chemical more than a decade ago, before contaminated drinking-water wells were shut off. The government officials could not tell us how long people consumed contaminated water. They did not know.
I learned that the sadness and frustration I sensed that first day when I interviewed Dolores Springer, the young mother who gave Kathleen Stanton the notebook, were not unusual among the ill residents of the Superfund sites.
You do not see many articles in the press about groundwater, contaminated or otherwise. Reporters worry that the stories will be tedious, consumed with parts-per-billion paragraphs. Editors worry that no one will read the copy.
But these stories captured the attention of U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, as well as U.S. representative-elect Sam Coppersmith and staffers at the office of U.S. representative-elect Karan English.
Senator DeConcini supports more health studies and wants several points in our story brought up during upcoming Superfund reauthorization hearings.
Sam Coppersmith stands behind researching alternative technology for groundwater cleanup. It's a good way to put people to work, as well as help the environment, he tells me. "We lead the world in environmental technology. There's no reason to throw in the towel now. Groundwater contamination is a problem internationally as well. We should develop a technology that the world will want to buy. There's no magic wand, of course, but clearly this should be a priority.
"We need to make sure people understand that jobs versus environment is a false choice. We can have both jobs and a clean environment."
Karan English's office has contacted citizen activists who want complete health studies, a thorough investigation of the new Superfund plan and an amendment to the North American Free Trade Agreement.
@body:What happened after the publication of the first story in May was that citizens began getting active in environmental matters.
Tupac Enrique, a Mexicano-Chicano activist, and Velma Dunn, a lively 64-year-old grandmother/real estate broker, are leaders of a citizens' group that, today, really does command the attention of local officials, as well as senators and members of the U.S. Congress. This unlikely pair of activists is determined to change not only local environmental policy but national Superfund regulations and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
I met Tupac a couple of years ago at an event on the Salt River reservation. At the time, he looked pretty interesting. Piercing eyes, a quick smile, a long braid of jet-black hair. He didn't talk much the first time I met him.
Two years later, I finally got him to talk.
He told me that as a young man, he worked as an irrigator for the Salt River Project. He would drive from one Phoenix neighborhood to another, stopping to unlock the gates that released water from the big canals, allowing it to flow into the smaller ditches and onto the gardens of the homeowners who had hired him to irrigate their bermuda lawns and grapefruit trees.
Sometimes, he would sit quietly and listen to the water, and think about how the modern Salt River Project canals followed the paths of irrigation canals constructed a thousand years ago by his ancestors, the Hohokam.
Water, he said, is and always has been sacred to his people.
"Nhuatl" is an ancient word that mimics the sound of water as it cascades down river rocks, he told me.
The same word, "nhuatl," is given to the language family that is shared by Tupac Enrique's indigenous relatives in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, as well as by the Hopi and Tohono O'odham and Pima and thousands of other native peoples in the Americas.
These days, Tupac Enrique teaches high school kids about his indigenous culture. He's also co-director of a Mexicano-Chicano civil rights group called Maricopa County Organizing Project.
Suffice it to say that Tupac Enrique does not take lightly the revelations about the groundwater contamination spreading from beneath the Motorola plants.
He and other minority activists in the Albuquerque-based Southwest Network for Environmental Justice have targeted Motorola plants throughout the Southwestern United States, California and Mexico for a two-year "environmental justice" campaign, says Southwest Network co-chairman Richard Moore.
The point of the campaign is to ensure that Motorola follows environmental and worker-safety laws and is diligent in attempting to clean up pollution on both sides of the border, Moore tells me.
"It ain't just about the United States," Richard Moore says.
Tupac Enrique and Velma Dunn have different brands of activism, but the two styles complement each other. Tupac is quiet and reserved. Velma is a pistol.
The two really joined forces last summer, after Tupac called a meeting in South Phoenix. Activists and citizens who were interested in the Motorola Superfund sites, as well as residents who lived around a former Motorola plant in Tupac's neighborhood in South Phoenix, attended. Tupac has started up a health investigation of people who used to work at that plant, suspecting that because it was located in a Mexicano-Chicano area the working conditions may have been less than safe, an allegation Motorola hotly denies.
At the meeting last summer, Tupac said a prayer, asking God to guide those who wanted to care for The Water.
I think everyone in the room felt the power of that prayer.
Especially Velma. She sent out a Christmas card this year that quoted excerpts from a letter written by Chief Seattle to President Franklin Pierce. "We know the White Man does not understand our ways," Velma's card says. "One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on."
"We're communicating with the officials who are supposed to protect us," says Velma, "that's what was missing all along before."
Velma seems to get along with most state and federal environmental regulators. She figures the regulators, for the most part, are good people who have to follow bad laws.
So she wants to change the laws.
"You're a good person," she has said more than once at meetings with regulators. "I have nothing against you. But your study stinks."
I've only seen Tupac smile once in all those long hours of meetings with regulators. That was when Velma asked an official if he was going through menopause.
Velma is more openly aggressive than her friend. For instance, Tupac stays away from lawsuits. Velma is active in a lawsuit in which about 1,500 people are suing Motorola, claiming that the pollution caused ill health and declining real estate values.
Throughout the summer, Velma and Tupac and other residents kept up their organizing and meeting. They didn't seem to lose their momentum.
The activists began to rattle the cages of public officials, who sometimes tried to duck tough questions.
If a public official tries to weasel out of answering important questions just to save his political skin, reporters don't like it.
They don't like it at all.
Once I had to "bird-dog" Ed Fox, the director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Bird-dogging is no reporter's idea of fun, but we all have to do it.
Here is how bird-dogging works: You hang around a public place for hours because you know an official is supposed to show up. When he finally appears, you confront him and demand the answers to the questions he's been avoiding.
Reporters have other challenges, of course.
Like trying to figure out what goes on in a foreign country. I learned that firsthand when I looked into the Motorola semiconductor plant at Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.
@body:Francisco Navarrete has tried and tried to explain how Mexicans feel about reporters from the United States.
Francisco works at the Maricopa County Organizing Project. He knows a lot about dealing with Mexico.
See, I wanted to learn more about Motorola's Guadalajara facility. I made about 30 telephone calls to professors and government officials and citizen activists who were supposed to be involved in environmental affairs. I sent faxes. I wrote letters.
I didn't get a single response.
"Terry, Terry," Francisco told me more than once, "They don't know who you are. How can they trust you if you call them on the phone? You have to go down to Mexico, they have to meet you through someone they trust. Then the next day, you go back and they'll talk to you."
What whetted my appetite were documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act that revealed a chemical trail from the Motorola plant at 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix to the Motorola plant in Guadalajara.
Tons of chemicals and toxic gases were shipped from Phoenix to Guadalajara from January to August 1992 (the last month for which figures are available) according to the documents, which are called manifests and were obtained from the EPA.
As an American company, Motorola can legally do two things with its hazardous waste in Mexico, an EPA official told me.
Motorola can pay the Mexican government a tax on the hazardous materials entering Mexico. It can then dispose of its hazardous waste in one of a handful of landfills approved by the Mexican government.
Or Motorola can return the hazardous waste to the United States, as required by law, and dispose of it in an American landfill.
The EPA does not know what happens to the chemicals that travel from Phoenix to Guadalajara.
The EPA has no jurisdiction over American companies in Mexico.
It does not know how the chemicals in Guadalajara are stored.
Or disposed of.
Mexican citizens and activists face the same problem. There are no right-to-know laws in Mexico.
"Guadalajara is indicative of problems in the interior of Mexico," says Geof Land of the Border Ecology Project in Naco, Arizona.
"The United States public and the Mexican public don't know where hazardous materials from American companies are disposed of. There is no tracking system.
"This is a virtual black hole."
Jaime Palafox, a liaison for the Mexican equivalent to the EPA, is stationed in the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Palafox refused to answer repeated, direct questions about the lack of community right-to-know laws in Mexico. "We have public participation" is all Palafox would say last week. "The public can participate by placing complaints against specific companies if they think those companies are polluting."
Palafox even sent us Mexico's environmental laws that were passed in anticipation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Not a single law deals with a citizen's right to know. When we asked the activists about Guadalajara, they, too, were stumped. But in typical activist fashion, they added the plant to their list of projects.
In Arizona, Tupac Enrique and Velma Dunn are lobbying their Congress members and senators to push for right-to-know laws in Mexico as part of amendments to the North American Free Trade Agreement. They want to alert Mexican workers and people living near the American plants about the risks of the chemicals that are being used.
Sam Coppersmith tells me the whole issue of telling another nation what to do is tricky. It smacks of imperialism.
Motorola, for its part, sent me a written statement in response to a list of questions about the Guadalajara plant.
The company says the Guadalajara facility uses chemicals that originate in Mexico and the United States. However, the company refused to provide documents on chemicals transported from Phoenix to Guadalajara because "we cannot assemble the information in the amount of time allowed for your deadline." (Ten days.)
When asked if it disposed of hazardous chemicals through its sewer system, Motorola did not say "yes" or "no." Instead, the company said that wastewater is treated before it is discharged through the sewer.
The company "makes every effort to ensure the safety of the employees and people who live around the plant" in Guadalajara, says Motorola spokesman Lawrence Moore.
Like all the Motorola people I interviewed, Moore is pleasant and courteous. I appreciated the fact that he always called me back and tried to work within my deadlines.
One day when we were chatting, he summed his job up better than I ever could. He said he's paid to be a "professional optimist."
@body:Velma Dunn and hundreds of citizens have sued Motorola in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, claiming the company's pollution injured their health and caused a substantial decline in the values of their real estate.
In early 1992, another group of citizens filed suit in Maricopa County Superior Court against Motorola and several other companies, once again alleging that the chemical contamination caused ill health and a decline in real estate values.
In both cases, Motorola denies the charges.
The lawsuits in Phoenix are not unusual. Across the nation, citizens, feeling ignored by the government regulators whom they entrusted to protect them, direct their anger at the polluting companies, providing a fertile field for lawyers to plow.
Both the American Bar Association and the National Lawyers Guild have told me that toxic tort cases are increasing.
They are not without controversy, I learned.
Lawyers who sue polluting companies say the lawsuits are the only way to prevent further corporate environmental assaults.
"Unfortunately, in this country money talks," Denise Abrams, an Oakland-based attorney who heads the toxic tort committee of the National Lawyers Guild, told me. "We have to shame the companies to make them shape up."
One thing that's for sure, the Department of Justice hasn't made the companies shape up.
In October 1992, the National Law Center at George Washington University reported to Congress that the justice department repeatedly refused to take prosecutable environmental cases to court, despite recommendations from U.S. attorneys' offices that the crimes be prosecuted.
The report makes it clear that what we discovered in Phoenix and Scottsdale is a story that plays itself out across the nation.
Companies pollute. People get sick. Then the sick people wonder if their diseases are related to the exposures. The government, in the minds of the people, sides with the polluters because it often denies that a link exists between the chemical and the disease.
But sometimes they get no satisfaction in court, either.
Plaintiffs' lawyers are often criticized by regulators and their lawyers for inflaming the citizenry in an effort to sign up as many clients as possible. "I am not against attorneys per se," says Barbara Goldberg, an attorney for the City of Scottsdale. Her gripe is with California attorney Jeffrey Matz, who is Velma Dunn's lawyer in the lawsuit against Motorola. Goldberg says Matz sometimes "scared little old ladies" by exaggerating the environmental disaster in Phoenix and Scottsdale.
DEQ even has a transcript of one of Matz's public speeches in its files.
Matz exaggerated environmental data, which had the effect of frightening citizens, says DEQ spokesman John Godec. Godec says Matz asserted that TCE caused health problems and provided no documentation. "It's immoral," Godec told me. Matz also exaggerated problems relating to chemicals in the soil, schools, neighborhoods and even the sewer, Godec claims.
I found a couple of exaggerations in the speech myself. For instance, Matz said that one Motorola plant "has a leach pipe that puts 22 gallons a minute of TCE and other VOC's into the crosscut canal, and they have been doing that since the 1950s."
What makes Matz's statement questionable is the fact that this plant is now an office building and, further, the company says it hasn't used TCE for more than a decade.
Matz says he stands by the speech, and will prove each point in court. "I believe what I say, and I say what I believe," he says.
Another controversy swirling over toxic tort lawyers is the matter of fees. Plaintiffs who sign on to the lawsuits generally agree to give their attorneys from 33 to 40 percent of the settlements, plus pay their share of expenses, which are substantial. Medical experts are not cheap.
If the lawyers lose the lawsuit, plaintiffs still have to shoulder the expenses, says Harriet Turney, an attorney for the Arizona state bar.
But even if the lawyers win, some plaintiffs are bound to be disappointed.
You only need to go to Tucson to find that out.
Last year, nearly 2,000 plaintiffs settled for $84.5 million with Hughes Aircraft after a six-year court battle over drinking water that had been contaminated with TCE in South Tucson. The lawyers got $37 million; the plaintiffs divvied up $47.5 million.
Which means some were disappointed.
Three southside plaintiffs, who asked that their names not be used, say the lawyers tricked them into thinking they would get large settlements. The women got from $100,000 to $20,000 for diseases ranging from lymphoma to breast cancer. The women, who are Latinos, are now convinced that Anglos got larger settlements than Latinos.
"Some people get very, very angry," says Fred Baron, a partner in the Dallas firm Baron and Budd, which settled the Tucson case for the plaintiffs. "But hundreds of people got very substantial settlements and are very happy."
What happens, Baron says, is that even the best medical expert can't link each and every disease to contamination. So not each and every sick person gets a good settlement.
"Typically, a community seeks help from the government, which doesn't do anything," he says. "An entire community feels it should take part in a lawsuit because they feel every illness is related to contamination. We can't prove that's true in every case. People see their neighbors got a lot more than they did. Then people become convinced that there is a cover-up and the lawyers are in cahoots with the government."
But the troubles aren't over.
Since January 1992, two additional class-action lawsuits against Hughes and other parties were filed.
I guess it could go on and on.
@body:Velma Dunn insists that the fact that she is a plaintiff does not affect her activism. However, she does admit that some documents she turns up as an activist may find their way into court some day.
"My job is to get the truth out to the people," she says of her activism. "Our job is to change laws so that the government can protect us."
Last week, Velma Dunn and her Oversight Committee, which includes her new friend Tupac Enrique, drafted a list of citizen demands. Dunn wants city, state and federal elected officials to take action on the Motorola contamination. Among the requests:
Thorough federal health studies of both sites.
A federal disease registry to log cases of lupus, cancer and birth defects in the Superfund sites.
Specialized medical treatment and counseling for citizens who have been poisoned by chemicals, to be paid for on a sliding scale by the citizens and provided by the state.
A "risk-assessment" study that would look at past and present risks associated with living in the area, to be paid for by the federal government and the state.
The purchase of new county air-monitoring equipment that would enable the county, and not the polluters, to report and monitor air-pollution data.
The rejection of the EPA's new Superfund plan to clean up sites according to "risk."
Spending a substantial portion of EPA's research dollars on developing alternative groundwater cleanup technologies.
A complete public accounting from the Department of Defense that details monies reimbursed to Motorola for Superfund expenses.
A financial mechanism, such as a trust fund paid into by polluters, that would protect citizen consumers from paying for cleanup of drinking water pulled from contaminated plumes in times of drought.
Integrating into the North American Free Trade Agreement amendments demanding that Mexico should have community right-to-know laws so that the worker and environment would be protected and American companies moving to Mexico would have to follow the same rules as in this country.
Dunn and Enrique may get some help from Senator Dennis DeConcini, who says it is "crucial to examine" some of the issues they raised.
The senator supports further health studies and the development of new groundwater cleanup technologies, says DeConcini spokesman Bob Maynes.
Upcoming hearings on the reauthorization of the EPA Superfund in 1993 will be an ideal place to examine whether defense contractors should be reimbursed for Superfund costs by the Department of Defense, says Maynes.
The risk-based Superfund "revitalization" ushered in during the waning days of the Bush administration and detailed by New Times should also be investigated during the reauthorization, he says.
"Senator DeConcini is obviously going to be sure that the new Superfund approach is evaluated very carefully," Maynes continues. "The groundwater problems in Arizona may not be an 'immediate high risk,' but in a desert environment eventually that water may be critical and necessary. We will shoot ourselves in the foot if we ignore it until it becomes an 'immediate risk.'
"The senator is concerned about any move on the part of the EPA and the federal government that tends to write off those kinds of problems. Senator DeConcini does not want to see federal dollars no longer flowing in to deal with our kind of problems simply because someone defined them away."
Right before Christmas, Velma Dunn got a telephone call from Ed Delaney, a top aide in the office of representative-elect Karan English. She says Delaney wanted to meet the second week in January. He'd just gotten a letter from Dunn's committee.
On the agenda, according to Dunn: the North American Free Trade Agreement, the new Superfund Plan, Motorola's backbilling the Department of Defense for Superfund costs.
"I feel like we're finally getting light at the end of the tunnel," says Velma Dunn. "And this time it's not a freight train coming my way."
"This is nothing we can walk away from," says Tupac Enrique.
We got the news out.
It feels great.
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