Arizona's Worst Neighbor
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.
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. San Antonio Spurs
TicketsMon., Oct. 3, 7:00pm
NBA Preseason Basketball: Phoenix Suns v. Utah Jazz
TicketsWed., Oct. 5, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsFri., Oct. 7, 7:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 8, 7:00pm
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.
She and her neighbors have been told time and time again by TRW that the emissions from the plant are not harmful, that the deadly toxins undergo chemical changes that render them virtually harmless.
But Bertleson and her neighbors have a hard time believing TRW, a company with a miserable record of repeatedly violating workplace and environmental laws. A firm whose lax safety monitoring has resulted in the death of one worker and serious injuries to several more, TRW's Arizona operation has a history of making promises to regulatory agencies, then breaking them.
It's difficult to get an accurate count of fires, explosions and accidental chemical releases at TRW. State, federal and local agencies have different reporting requirements and keep track of reports differently.
Clearly, there have been dozens of fires, explosions, toxic releases and emergency medical calls in the past 10 years, a review of various agencies' records reveals.
Six years ago, TRW received a record fine from the Arizona Industrial Commission, then settled a civil and criminal case arising out of a deadly explosion by agreeing to pay more than $1.7 million, the largest corporate criminal consent judgment in Arizona history.
A pending plea agreement and consent judgment would brand the company one of America's worst environmental offenders.
The consent agreement hammered out by state and federal authorities calls for the company to pay more than $23 million in civil and criminal fines and penalties for improperly disposing of millions of gallons of sodium-azide-laced waste in three landfills (including the Butterfield facility south of Phoenix and two others in other states). Prosecutors say it is the largest such settlement of its type in Arizona history. And it is believed to be the biggest ever in the nation.
TRW -- one of the top employers in Mesa and among the largest in the Valley -- has apologized for its actions in that case and has blamed years of illegal hazardous waste dumping on a few employees who have since been fired. In January, when the proposed settlement was announced, DeWayne Pinkstaff, head of the division that makes air bags, noted that the company has cooperated with investigators since the illegal dumping was discovered and assured people that there was no harm done.
"Fortunately, our errors have not resulted in harm to the environment and there is no threat to the health of workers or residents," he said in a company press release.
Diane Lancaster, TRW's communication manager, says the wastewater settlement recognizes the strides the firm has made over the years after "continuous improvement efforts."
Bunny Bertleson says she was not at all encouraged by the recent news of the big settlement, touted by authorities as an example of how polluting companies will be held accountable for their actions.
"They should have been put in jail," she says.
The agreement -- set to be finalized this summer -- calls for TRW to admit to 15 state and federal felonies, pay fines and penalties, spend millions cleaning up contaminated sites and pay for a new emergency notification system for Maricopa County. (One of the neighbors' complaints is that they have never been given any official notice or asked to evacuate in a decade of fires and accidental releases.)
Edward Truman, head of the Arizona Attorney General's Office environmental law enforcement section, says if the company fails to live up to its agreements this time, it could face further penalties or be hauled back into court on charges of violating probation. And, he adds, there is still the possibility that the individuals involved in the illegal dumping could face criminal charges themselves.
Bertleson believes a monetary penalty-- even a record one -- means little to a company like TRW.
"I think that industry should not get by with just paying a fine," she says. "Each year TRW puts away millions of dollars for any kind of litigation."
In fact, according to the company's annual report, TRW set aside $35 million last year for litigation costs.
"It doesn't impact them at all. It's a joke."
Bunny Bertleson suffers from recurring breathing problems, a kind of voice-hoarsening bronchitis that comes and goes. She has lost her sense of smell and in recent years has started to transpose numbers.
Her husband, an executive at a Tempe engineering firm, has vertigo and amnesia. Her daughter, who had lived with the Bertlesons when they first moved to the area, had a miscarriage and developed asthma problems she hadn't experienced since childhood. A grandchild suddenly developed depth perception difficulties that others in the family do not suffer from. Even with her new glasses, she cannot ride a bike.
Could these maladies be linked to toxic emissions from TRW?
The company, in a fact sheet distributed to neighbors in 1999, says absolutely not. Without naming Bertleson, TRW discounts the claims made by a "concerned citizen," asserting that investigations show "there is no evidence indicating TRW is adversely impacting any off-site areas."
The fact sheet says studies have proven "people and horses living near the . . . facility will not be affected by sodium azide." It says sodium azide doesn't cause cancer or birth defects in people or animals and maintains that an accidental fire, at worst, could temporarily irritate the eyes, nose and throat of a person or animal downwind.
"However, the combination of events necessary for even this irritation is extremely unlikely," the company declared.
Some of Bertleson's neighbors hope to find out who is right. They've filed a lawsuit asking that anyone living within five miles of the plant at Germann and Ellsworth roads be entitled to medical monitoring. The complaint, filed a year ago by the Phoenix office of the Hagens Berman & Mitchell law firm, hopes to make TRW pay for medical tests for every member of the "class," believed to number as high as 8,000.
They want TRW to pay for ongoing screening to determine whether exposure to sodium azide or other chemicals emitted from TRW is affecting their health now or in the future.
The complaint seeks punitive damages from the company and an injunction barring TRW from continuing to emit toxic or noxious substances into the air. A federal judge from Alaska has been assigned to the case, and first must determine whether the lawsuit should be treated as a class action. Arguments on that issue are set for this summer.
Bertleson's neighbors say in the lawsuit that they, too, have suffered from a variety of similar ailments and watched their animals get sick and die.
Their ills include respiratory problems, degenerative bones, headaches, dizziness and seizures. Some of their horses have had trouble walking; one died shortly after a toxic release from TRW. They claim other farm animals have had spontaneous abortions and have had trouble breeding or hatching. Their dogs and other animals have died.
Neighbors can't be sure their ailments are linked to whatever is being emitted from TRW, rather than other factors. But they say they, their animals and plants were healthy before the sudden onset of some of these problems. And they believe that the similar nature of their ailments, as well as the problems experienced by their animals, would indicate an environmental, rather than internal, cause.
And scientific research on sodium azide's effect on animals and plants supports their theory: neurological damage, respiratory problems, vision problems, a slow, cumulative poisoning and genetic mutation of plants have been linked to sodium azide.
Residents allege that TRW "grossly underestimates" emissions of sodium azide from the Mesa plant. The company reported 13,000 pounds released in 1997 and 7,500 pounds in 1998.
The lawsuit alleges TRW is engaging in an "ongoing and secretive scheme to hide the true nature and extent of the release of toxic substances" from the plant.
TRW refutes the claims made by Bertleson and her neighbors and says the company plans to vigorously defend the lawsuit. "This matter has been studied for years," Lancaster says. "Government authorities have reviewed those studies or participated in designing those studies. . . . And every study has shown that the claims articulated in the lawsuit are without merit."
If the class is certified, Bertleson and her husband would be included among the group that would be entitled to medical monitoring. And if it weren't for her behind-the-scenes efforts, the lawsuit might never have been filed.
Howard Shanker, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, says Bertleson is like a local version of Erin Brockovich, the real-life character portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film of the same name.
Brockovich, who helped prove that a major utility's contamination of a small town's water supply was causing medical problems, exhibited a relentless determination.
The 62-year-old Bertleson is equally dogged, calling public and corporate officials, filing public information requests and keeping her video camera with her at all times.
Bertleson first noticed something wrong with one of her horses in 1991 when LB, a "very lively, exuberant young stallion," seemed strangely exhausted after a romp in the pasture. He lay down and slept, then later rolled around and wouldn't eat. A veterinarian couldn't explain it, but Bertleson later found that there had been a fire at TRW three days earlier.
Soon, she says, more strange things began happening to her horses, a collection of Arabians that came from impressive stock, in some cases internationally known and even royal lineage. Six horses began to founder, showing problems walking or even standing. Their hooves would buckle under, and they would avoid putting any weight on them. Several of the horses began swelling up and the mares began to have reproductive problems. The stallions would be too tired to breed and several horses refused to eat or lost weight.
"You don't know what to think," says Bertleson. They consulted vet after vet and spent thousands of dollars for new types of horseshoes, alternative medical treatments including magnetic therapy and massages, and special diets.
In 1993, members of the Bertleson family and their visitors began to have headaches and breathing problems. Sunday dinners for family and friends were called off after guests began to worry about their health.
A complicated, expensive plan to export LB's frozen semen to Bertleson's native Latvia had to be canceled. She'd wanted LB to be a "foundation stallion" for the country and help start a new line of Arabians there.
Ivanhoe Road, where the Bertlesons live, is in an unincorporated part of Maricopa County adjacent to Mesa and Queen Creek. The homes are a good distance from each other and the neighbors don't bump into each other in their driveways.
And so it was years before Bertleson mentioned some of her animals' problems to neighbor Bonnie Kane. She found Kane had been having similar problems: Kane's rabbits were inexplicably dying, hogs had gone blind, a turkey's legs had literally curled up over time and hens were suddenly sterile.
Bertleson began to believe that the problems in the area were related to the strange clouds seen floating over the neighborhood.
In 1995, she began taking videos to document what she was seeing. "I was afraid no one would believe me," she says.
Meanwhile, she began her search for information about what sorts of materials were being used by the company and what was being emitted.
And when the plant began to experience repeated explosions and fires, she sought records of those incidents, too.
Working without the benefit of the Internet, Bertleson amassed four filing cabinet drawers full of information. She determined that many agencies were interested in "collecting paperwork" but not sharing information. So she would disperse reports among city, county, state and federal agencies, pointing out inconsistencies between them.
After a November 3, 1997, fire, for example, TRW reported to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that 1,500 pounds of sodium azide had been burned, sending "two large plumes" in a northeast direction. But a December 5 letter to the state Division of Emergency Management reported that only 65 pounds of the chemical were consumed in the fire which "resulted in no affect [sic] to persons off site."
In addition to faxing and mailing copies of reports to various agencies, Bertleson also sent bureaucrats copies of her videos.
Meanwhile, she started closing her windows at night, kept a diary of her horses' health and continued videotaping.
So far, she and her husband have had to put five Arabians and six dogs down. They've lost a premature foal after sleeping in the barn feeding it with a baby bottle for two nights. Twenty-seven chickens and 30 trees have died.
One day in January, a week before the scheduled euthanasia of Crystal, a mare who stood still in her stall, and Conquest, a stallion who was reduced to lying on his side, Bertleson mourned for them and the others.
"I've cried so many tears," she says. "It's the emotional impact that is so horrible. The things you love, you have to kill."
Michael Robinson, a Tucson veterinarian consulted in 1997 in an effort to help the crippled horses, says when he first saw them, he advised they all be put down.
"When I got there, none of them could walk," he says. "They were in horrible shape."
But the Bertlesons wanted desperately to save them, so Robinson cut the tendons on three of them, a bloody operation captured on tape, recommended special shoes and put them on a detoxifying diet.
Four of them are doing okay now, Bertleson says, but they are still too weak to be ridden.
"I had nothing to suggest otherwise," he says.
Steve Brittle, a Valley environmental activist with Don't Waste Arizona, has helped her find out more about TRW, the chemicals in use there and the government's regulatory actions.
He says he watched Bertleson's horses get sicker and sicker. "I saw the horses go from healthy to having to be put down," he says. "I don't cry easily, but that one was hard."
He applauds her idea to capture everything on videotape. "Just the images alone will tell the story," he says.
But Brittle says anyone driving around the area can see evidence of chemical damage. "There are whole areas where the desert vegetation has died and it looks like someone took a blow torch to it," he says.
Brittle attended some of the community meetings organized by Bertleson and her attorney after she decided to get legal help fighting TRW. The stories told by the residents and the similarity of the problems were amazing, he says.
He says no homes, schools or businesses should be allowed within 20 miles of the plant. And he is concerned for the dairies and the Queen Creek schools, some of which are about a mile from TRW.
James Murlless, superintendent of the Queen Creek Unified School District, did not return a call from New Times, but his secretary expressed surprise at the query about whether the plant has caused any health problems at the schools. "I don't believe it has," she says.
Indeed, the company is known within the district for donations of books and space camp trips for students.
TRW found itself in trouble with government regulators soon after it started operating in the Mesa area in 1989. It bought several existing plants and soon built another -- near Bertleson's house.
The Arizona office of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration began investigating some plants owned by TRW because of employee complaints. Two fires that year at plants in Mesa and Higley -- five employees were injured -- also sparked a number of separate inquiries.
Serious violations of safety laws were also noted at those plants (including improper training and lack of proper protective equipment for employees) and fines of $2,700 were levied. But those penalties were reduced to $1,040 after TRW blamed some hazards on the former operator and promised to do better. A 1990 U.S. General Accounting Office report on accidental fires in the air-bag industry notes the Mesa Fire Department applauded TRW's "exemplary" cooperation after the fires. And the report says OSHA decided to cut one of the fines because of TRW's "positive attitude and corrective efforts."
TRW, it seems, was the Eddie Haskell of the air-bag industry. While pledging the highest commitment to safety and compliance with regulations, time and time again, it failed to keep its promises.
Minutes from the March 15, 1990, planning and zoning meeting in which the company was given the green light to build its Germann Road plant show promises to maintain a safe, clean plant. A summary of a corporate official's comments says "the TRW philosophy was to not pollute. Waste products would be reclaimed except for the hazardous materials which would be removed from the site."
The rezoning from ranch and agricultural use to a designation allowing manufacturing of the air bags was approved unanimously. Minutes note that the company would employ up to 1,300 people at the site, and would use landscaping and berms to make the site and building "involving potentially explosive materials" visually pleasing to neighbors. The board notes reflect minimal mention about the possible environmental impact on the area, no reference to sodium azide and vague promises to comply with fire and building codes.
In 1991, the year the plant opened, the ADEQ found that TRW was illegally storing sodium azide and other hazardous materials and waste. In an August 1991 consent order, the company agreed to obtain the required permit and properly manage hazardous waste and storage at its Germann Road plant within 45 days.
Four years later, TRW had not obtained the proper permit. So the state Attorney General's Office took the company to court again, fining it $79,000. TRW again agreed to get the required permits, improve its safety program and do a better job of reporting its fires, explosions and releases of hazardous materials.
That November 1995 agreement came about a year after an explosion and fire at the TRW Higley plant killed one worker and injured six others. OSHA found TRW in violation of several safety and health standards, the Arizona Industrial Commission fined it $33,000, then increased the fine to $89,000 for what it considered willful violations.
The number of fires, explosions and chemical releases from TRW's Valley facilities is difficult to calculate. The lawsuit filed by Bertleson's neighbors alleges there have been hundreds of such incidents. Reporting requirements vary from agency to agency, and the company has its own emergency response team and automatic fire system, meaning it hasn't always called the local fire department for help. And since it believes that sodium azide is converted to harmless chemicals in fires or explosions, it doesn't always report incidents it believes have not resulted in sodium azide releases.
A comparison of various records, however, shows that there have clearly been a large number of possibly hazardous incidents at TRW.
Maricopa County Pollution Control reports show that from 1994 through 1996, the company had 76 "occurrences," 52 of them fires. Mesa Fire Department reports show 168 fire calls and 67 medical calls to the plant in 1995 and 1996. And the lawsuit filed by the neighbors recounts 22 fires and spills in 1997, three toxic releases and three fires in 1998 and six fire calls in 1999.
In September 1995, the Mesa fire chief, noting a "persistent, chronic and on-going pattern of frequent and severe explosions" at that site, said TRW was posing an "imminent threat to both life and property." A cease and desist order shut down the plant.
But two days later, the order was lifted. TRW agreed to a 15-point safety plan that called for safety upgrades, improvements in plant design, further studies of the plant and its operations and better reporting and cooperation with Mesa and other agencies.
In November of that year, about the same time TRW was settling with the state over the Germann Road problems, the company pleaded no contest to a single count of violating hazardous waste management laws to avoid a manslaughter charge stemming from the fatal fire in 1994 at the Higley plant. An additional $1.75 million in fines and penalties levied was the largest corporate criminal fine in state history.
News reports of the court proceeding at which the agreement was lodged said a TRW lawyer wrote a check on the spot to cover the fines.
A year later, Joy West, a 36-year-old inflator operator at the TRW plant, was doing her $14.74-an-hour job, loading poker-chip-size discs of sodium azide into a tube. A sudden explosion and flash fire slammed her against the wall, ignited the discs in her hand, melted the protective gloves she was wearing, and left her temporarily blinded and tangled in her air hose.
She says the gloves she was wearing were not fireproof and her wrists were protected by duct tape which melted into her skin.
"I could feel the flames," she remembers. "My face hurt. I looked at my hands and they were like melted wax."
Three other employees were less seriously burned in the blast. Two were moaning and calling out near her and another had been blown out of the room.
"Nobody was looking for us," West says. "Everybody was running for their lives."
After a second explosion, a deluge water system designed to extinguish such fires was activated and the young worker who had landed outside the room came back in to drag her out.
But West says she lay outside for three hours before a helicopter arrived to take her to Desert Samaritan Hospital. Although government safety sheets on sodium azide recommend using water to get the chemical off an injured person as soon as possible, she says this didn't happen until she arrived at the hospital.
From there she was transported to the burn unit at Maricopa Medical Center, where plastic surgeons took skin from her wrist to re-form some of her fingers.
After an investigation into the blast, OSHA charged TRW with a minor violation that included no fines. But West believes that, despite repeated pronouncements of its dedication to safety for its employees and others, the company cut corners dangerously to save money.
TRW did not respond to questions about West's allegations.
She charges that the company didn't invest in fireproof coverings for its employees, that a robotic operation in the risky area where she worked was replaced by humans to speed up production. She says a daily shutdown for a washing of the facility was not adhered to, a slipshod practice which increased the risk of an accident because sodium azide is so highly combustible that the tiniest spark or friction can ignite residue or grain amounts.
While no records were available to substantiate whether West was left unattended for hours, Mesa Fire Department records reveal several other instances in which emergency personnel were kept at the guard shack at the plant and denied entry until a TRW official could accompany them.
Phoenix Deputy Fire Chief Bob Khan says such a practice is not uncommon when fire personnel respond to hazardous sites. Often, like TRW, a company will have its own on-site response team to deal first with an emergency. Khan says when the fire department shows up, its primary jobs are containment and evacuation. That may necessitate waiting for an update on the situation from company employees and a delay before firefighters can go in and look for anyone who may be hurt, he says.
Nonetheless, Mesa's reports show that the city suspected that TRW officials needlessly prevented firefighters access in other emergency situations. Records reveal occasions in which fire personnel called to the scene believed the very existence of a fire, explosion or injured person was being concealed by plant officials.
One April 1995 report tells of fire personnel being held up at the guard shack while a security guard would not confirm that an explosion had even occurred. And in a report after a November 1995 blast, a fire investigator noted that officials were falsely told there were no injuries when seven people were hurt. He also accused TRW of trying to hide video footage of the explosion.
Mary Cameli, Mesa's deputy fire chief, says now that the 15-point safety plan and efforts by TRW to improve safety at the plant have been working. In 1997, she says, emergency personnel responded to 16 calls there -- down sharply from dozens in previous years. In 1998, there were three calls, an equal number in 1999 and none in 2000, she says.
Directly across from TRW's back fence is a sign announcing the future construction of a Mesa fire station. Cameli says the decision was made to locate a new station adjacent to TRW not because of any special concerns with the plant, but more in response to the huge population growth out there.
In newspaper opinion pieces, TRW says it has been trying to move away from the use of sodium azide in its air-bag production and has been phasing out the chemical's use in favor of newer, more benign propellants.
But the company continues to cite studies that it says show no toxic chemicals are present in smoke or emissions released from its facility. Those reports, TRW says, show the chemical quickly turns into harmless substances.
But the authors of the reports also clearly state that further analysis and data are needed to answer all questions.
Other scientists disagree with TRW's conclusions. They remain concerned about problems sodium azide may cause.
Andy Kleinhofs, a Washington State University researcher who has studied sodium azide and its effect on living things, was asked by Bunny Bertleson to read over some of those reports. In a written reply, he told her some of the conclusions were "illogical," that the amounts believed to be carried in plumes after an explosion were "purely a guess" and that the fixation on analyzing only explosions and burns concerned him.
"What about the daily discharge of sodium azide dust particles and hydrazoic acid (a gas). There is a good probability of chronic emission of these compounds into the air and dispersal to the area surrounding the plant," he wrote.
Studies and reports on sodium azide show just a few grams of the chemical can cause death. It can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. And once inside the body, it can be absorbed into other organs. It is also described as a heritable mutagen, capable of altering genetic cells, an irritant to the skin, eyes, mucous membranes and respiratory tracts. The Environmental Protection Agency says it can harm the central nervous system, kidneys and cardiovascular system.
And, research shows, it results in cumulative toxicity; that is, repeated doses can cause greater damage than the individual amounts would suggest.
Eric Betterton, a University of Arizona professor whose research centers on the environmental effects of sodium azide, says while there have been studies about the impacts of sodium azide in individual cases of ingestion or exposure, there are no data about the long-term effects of ingesting smaller, nonfatal amounts.
He says even people living far from air-bag plants should be concerned about this for a couple of reasons. Uninflated air bags containing sodium azide are now accumulating in junk yards. Millions of pounds of discarded sodium azide could pose health hazards to entire communities, he says.
And transportation of the chemical is also dangerous. A small town in Utah was evacuated in 1996 after a truck spilled sodium azide on the highway. "If an 18-wheeler carrying a shipment of sodium azide rolled over on the Superstition Freeway, what would emergency personnel do?" he asks.
Asked what would be an effective way to treat such a spill, Betterton is stumped. "I can't conceive of a neat, slick way of handling a sodium azide spill," he says. "If it catches fire, it would be hard to handle."
Another reason all Valley residents should be worried about the toxic effects of sodium azide -- a water-soluble chemical -- is because ADEQ has detected a plume containing the chemical beneath the Germann Road TRW plant, traveling downward toward the groundwater supply.
Again, Betterton says, there has not been enough research on the chemical to know how long it might take to reach drinking-water supplies or whether it will convert to a harmless chemical by the time it gets there.
For the same reason, he says, TRW cannot say with certainty that the hazardous waste illegally disposed at the Butterfield landfill resulted in no threat to the environment.
In her pursuit of information about TRW and sodium azide, Bunny Bertleson has had her deep love for the United States tested.
A naturalized citizen, she made a dramatic escape from Latvia during World War II. The tiny country was a battleground between Soviet and German powers and her family was caught in the middle of it.
In a children's book she co-authored 20 years ago with a Scottsdale writer, Bertleson told what it was like to live under such conditions, in fear of the KGB, then the Nazis, while trying to save some of her cultural identity.
While she was only 3 years old when she, her sister, two brothers and parents fled the country, she remembers certain images vividly and was able to reconstruct the tale with the help of other family members.
Bertleson says her older siblings tried to protect her from the most horrible scenes, literally covering her face. But the pictures in her mind -- verified later by her sister and brothers -- are horrifying. Her uncle and aunt hid her family in the forest to protect them from the KGB. Bertleson remembers using branches as covers, crying a lot, being hushed. For their role in helping her family hide, her uncle was shot in the head and her aunt disappeared. She remembers the sight of her godfather, found in a ditch, slashed brutally after being tortured, then being shot to relieve his suffering.
She remembers the panic, the explosions, the acrid smells of Liepaja, a city under attack, while her family scrambled onto a boat to Poland. Her final memories of Latvia include watching corpses float by while her terrified family huddled together on the boat in 1944.
Her family lived in detention centers, then came to the United States five years later after a church in Minnesota sponsored them.
Over the years, she has worked to lose most of her accent, forgotten most of the Russian and German she used to know, and embraced the freedoms and opportunities in America.
But her respect for this country has been shaken during her campaign against TRW, which brought her into contact with Arizona bureaucrats.
She says some agencies were very cooperative. Others stonewalled her. She recounts visiting the Arizona Industrial Commission and sorting through thousands of pages of blank or nearly blank material deemed confidential by TRW. She tells how she finally got an agency to agree with her that the Material and Safety Data Sheet, which must be posted at workplaces to inform employees about hazardous materials, cannot be confidential.
She talks of meetings with Mesa officials -- one of whom went to work for TRW -- in which she felt they were trying to humiliate her, intimidate her or find out how much she knew. Bertleson says it wasn't right that she was referring city officials to studies on sodium azide.
"All that should have been done before the plant was allowed to open," she says.
Documents and letters detail her early request to the City of Mesa for public records about TRW, and how an exorbitant fee schedule meant she would have to shell out up to $2,500 for copies.
She initially agreed to pay the costs. But when she mentioned the amount -- including a fee of $5 per page for some pages and $1 per minute for research -- to Steve Brittle, he convinced her to protest. She contacted the Center for Law in the Public Interest attorney Tim Hogan, who wrote a letter to Mesa officials.
The city refunded Bertleson's initial check and amended its rates to a 20-cents-per-page copying fee.
A month later, on a Tuesday evening, Bertleson heard a weird noise. She thought maybe a plane from Williams Gateway Airport was going to crash.
It turned out to be another explosion at the plant less than two miles from her home. "With all the work that's gone into making TRW safe, I never thought it would happen again," she says.
Three employees were severely burned. A preliminary investigation by the Mesa Fire Department shows the blast was triggered as the workers attempted to dismantle a pipe as part of a demolition project. The probe also showed that TRW had again violated work-site laws because it failed to conduct a safety inspection before using a cutting torch on the pipe. It was the identical error that had caused the fatal fire in 1994.
Fire investigators believe had an inspection been performed, sodium azide residue that ignited inside the pipe would have been detected. On March 21, the Mesa Fire Department told TRW to stop all demolition work until the investigation into the incident was complete and until a "joint action plan and remedy" could be identified.
Cameli says the fire department is continuing its investigation. Further action won't come until inquiries by TRW, OSHA, the Attorney General's Office and the EPA are finished.
TRW calls the explosion an isolated incident and says it is continuing its investigation into the blast.
Meanwhile, the victims have been released from the hospital. A physician said they may suffer vision problems in the future.
Shortly after the explosion, Bertleson got on the phone. She called Dave Nichols, the TRW manager who once worked for Mesa Fire, to voice a complaint.
She called Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker and asked that the plant be shut down. She called the attending physician at Maricopa Medical Center to inform him about the dangers of sodium azide.
At home in Phoenix, Joy West couldn't believe it when she read in the newspaper about the latest explosion at TRW. "I thought, 'God, how many things can this company do?'" she says.
Her hands have healed and she has nearly full use of them. She left TRW a year after her accident; she says that with burned hands, a hearing problem and a raspy voice, she was in no position to look for another job for a while.
She moved to San Diego, then to Phoenix to sell cars, a less risky job. At age 40, she worries about what health problems she may encounter in the future as a result of her exposure to sodium azide.
"I looked as hard as I could to see what long-term effects there might be for me," she says. "But there isn't any information on it."
West says she wants to contact the latest employees injured at TRW to offer her condolences or any assistance she can give them. "I wonder what protective equipment they had on," she says.
Meanwhile, in the far reaches of the southeast Valley, Bertleson keeps writing letters, making phone calls. She keeps her video camera in a little backpack, and when she goes somewhere in her car (an older model with no air bags, thank you), she tosses it in.
With "For Sale" signs going up in the neighborhood all around her -- and few properties actually selling -- the question arises: Why doesn't she and her husband just move?
Because she doesn't want to give up.
"This is our home. We were here first," Bertleson says. "And this is a problem that needs to be solved, not only for me, but for everybody."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.