Following one of America's largest groundwater contaminations, the government allowed the polluter, Motorola, to inform the public of the consequences. The media played along with pedestrian "parts per billion" coverage that minimized the calamity. The effect was spin-control that would have made the chamber of commerce blush.
Were you aware, for example, that Motorola's own consultants warned that the TCE may never be purged from your aquifer?
VELMA DUNN DREADED delivering the bleak news to the crowd assembled at the Balsz School cafeteria one evening in October 1991.
The 64-year-old real estate broker took a deep breath and looked down at stacks of public records detailing severe and extensive groundwater pollution linked to Motorola--Arizona's largest employer. Then she faced the people who had grown to trust her.
Dunn had marshaled these owners of working-class homes near the Motorola semiconductor plant at 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix into successfully pressuring city fathers to modify zoning for the neighborhoods.
This accomplished, Dunn and the homeowners had dreamed of assembling their properties and selling the combined parcels as a package to commercial developers.
But now the dream was dead.
On a California trip earlier in the spring, Dunn learned during a casual conversation with an environmental consultant that the properties would not be marketable because a massive expanse of polluted groundwater originated beneath the Motorola plant. The plume snaked underground beneath the very homes she had hoped to sell. The contamination had earned the Motorola site a seat on the federal Superfund list in 1989.
Velma Dunn knew the land wouldn't sell to commercial developers who, under federal law, would assume at least some risk for liability for contamination beneath the land. The crushing of Dunn's entrepreneurial dream transformed her into a community activist with a keen interest in this environmental disaster.
And on this particular evening, Velma Dunn had more bad news for those gathered at the Balsz School cafeteria.
She told the crowd that the contamination beneath Motorola might never be cleaned up.
during the four years she had put together her now-doomed real estate project, Dunn says she remained blissfully unaware that a suspected carcinogen, the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, had poisoned the aquifer beneath the properties she was trying to market. Those homeowners who had vague recollections about a pollution problem linked to Motorola had been assured by state and federal officials entrusted with protecting the groundwater that "cleanup" would do just that--clean up the aquifers. Remove the TCE. Restore the underground water supply to its pure, chemical-free natural state.
Unbeknownst to the general public, Motorola's own consultants as well as state and federal officials have feared since 1986 that all the TCE might not be captured from beneath the Motorola plant on 52nd Street, New Times has learned.
What's more, for several years, many state and federal regulators have been aware of a raging debate over whether current technology can completely remove TCE and similar solvents from aquifers throughout the state, and, indeed, the nation.
But in Phoenix, those citizens most directly affected by TCE pollution had remained unaware that the toxic chemical might never be completely cleaned from their tainted groundwater supplies.
The national debate over aquifer cleanup has been raging for at least five years and presents a touchy public relations problem for environmental regulators.
TCE has been detected in roughly half of the 1,300 Superfund sites across the nation. Officials who once begged "clean" high-tech firms like Motorola to set up shop in their communities now look to federal and state governments to fix the serious pollution problem caused by the industries they once welcomed.
But a decade after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began ordering suspected corporate polluters like Motorola to install multimillion-dollar cleanup systems to remove TCE, the stubborn chemical remains in many "treated" aquifers, according to several scientific reports obtained by New Times. Using current technology, some of America's aquifers might not be completely cleaned up for 1,000 years, a 1991 U.S. Department of Energy report says. This means that for centuries, water pumped out of some TCE-contaminated aquifers would have to undergo expensive treatment before it is fit for drinking. This is bad news for Arizona, where vast plumes of TCE-laced groundwater lie beneath the desert cities of Tucson and Phoenix.
"To my knowledge, there is no proven way to get TCE out of many aquifers," says Douglas Mackay, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Mackay serves on a National Research Council committee that is studying the failure of modern technology to completely purge TCE and other solvents from the nation's tainted groundwater supplies.
State environmental officials interviewed for this story acknowledge that it may be impossible to completely cleanse aquifers of TCE and other similar chemicals, but most of these regulators are wary of the public's reaction to this news. The government is cautious with the truth: Why "panic" or "confuse" citizens by reporting the controversy?
"If you talk to people, they tell you they want you to clean up the groundwater. If you say, 'Gee, what we have doesn't work,' then what do you do?" says Ed Fox, the current director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Scientist Mackay sees it differently. If citizens grasped the simple fact that current technology can't do the job, they might pressure the government to perfect "more promising technologies," he says.
Informed citizens might also help forge the answers to questions plaguing Ed Fox and other regulators, questions that have yet to be resolved: If cleanup drags on for centuries, who pays? Should polluting industries be asked to pay money into a trust fund that would ensure water cleanup for future generations? How much will cleanup ultimately cost?
"The public should be aware that this is a tricky problem, and they're not," Mackay says.
The experience of Velma Dunn and the homeowners around the Motorola 52nd Street semiconductor factory is a case in point.
In 1982 Motorola itself reported to the state that a storage tank on the 52nd Street property was leaking TCA, an industrial degreaser that is not terribly toxic. But it didn't take long for Motorola and the state to learn that TCA wasn't really the problem.
The groundwater was poisoned with a far more dangerous industrial solvent--the suspected human carcinogen TCE. TCE readings beneath the plant were among the highest in the United States. None of the contaminated water near the 52nd Street plant had been tapped for public drinking-water supplies. But in 1984, a private well near the plant exceeded by 1,554 times the federal health standard for TCE in drinking water. Officials have always worried that the contamination, which is so vast it has yet to be completely charted, might one day infect clean drinking-water supplies. The plume from Motorola snakes westward into the eastern edge of one of the Valley's most productive underground water supplies. Sections of that aquifer are currently being used for drinking water.
In 1987, five years after the contamination was first discovered, Velma Dunn began her campaign to assemble the land into a real estate package. In those five years, she does not recall seeing a single newspaper article or watching one broadcast that warned of the widespread contamination.
From 1987 to 1991, she attended scores of meetings with zoning officials, city councilmembers, neighborhood leaders, real estate investors.
In those four years, despite countless meetings with Motorola's neighbors and Valley civic leaders, Velma Dunn says not a single person told her that the vast plume lurked beneath the very homes she hoped to sell.
Velma Dunn insists over and over that if she had known that the plume extended beneath the homes, she certainly would not have devoted four years of her life to putting the package together.
When she learned of the contamination in the summer of 1991, she tried to become informed. Armed with a portable copy machine, Dunn and neighborhood leaders copied public records detailing the contamination.
Within months, it was Velma Dunn--not Motorola, not state and federal regulators and not the media--who informed the neighbors that the TCE might never be cleaned out of the aquifer.
How could this come to pass?
How could a reasonably well-informed businesswoman remain ignorant for ten years of an environmental disaster that so directly affected her project? How could Velma Dunn's clients insist that they were equally uninformed?
And how is it that so shortly after she became aware of the magnitude of the contamination that Velma Dunn became the person to inform concerned residents that the pollution might never be completely cleaned up?
Why didn't the government get the word out?
Why didn't Motorola?
Why didn't the press?
The answer begins with the fact that once the contamination was discovered, state regulators entrusted with protecting the groundwater turned over the responsibility for the collection and analysis of environmental data to Motorola's consultants. This was not an unusual practice elsewhere in America, but it became questionable in Arizona when regulators did not check the data for quality. Next, the regulators allowed Motorola's consultants to take over all official communications with citizens.
This was a situation rife with potential for conflict of interest, and in 1991 the state resumed responsibility for informing the public.
With the regulators and regulated in lock step, the public's last hope for an independent look at one of America's worst groundwater disasters rested with the media.
But the press, including this newspaper, was less than vigilant in its coverage of the extensive pollution linked to the state's largest employer.
Left to their own devices, citizens did not understand the problem until realtor Velma Dunn stumbled into it.
The community's outrage over not being sufficiently informed is one reason thousands of citizens, including Velma Dunn, last year filed two class-action lawsuits against Motorola. The plaintiffs charge that the pollution caused poor health and a decline in real estate values. Motorola has denied the charges.
as the sleepy neighborhoods near the Motorola plant on 52nd Street and McDowell wake up to the pollution beneath them, residents are beginning to ask a critical question.
Why did the state abdicate its responsibility to inform the public to Motorola's consultants, Dames and Moore, from early 1985 to late 1991?
The setup was "atypical" according to an October 1991 letter from Alexis Strauss, an EPA Superfund official, to the state. "Woefully inadequate" is what another EPA official wrote the state after reading a Dames and Moore newsletter.
The letters from EPA notwithstanding, Dames and Moore says the state and EPA asked Motorola to communicate with the citizens. "They instructed Motorola to carry out the program" because this was a common practice, says Marty Rozelle, who directed the public relations campaign for Dames and Moore. The communications plan was preapproved by state and federal regulators, she says.
However, following the EPA's written reprimand, the state took back its communications duties. A spokesman, John Godec, was hired. Godec has mailed two newsletters to residents around the plant. He frequently meets with smaller groups, including a committee of neighborhood leaders.
The state's recent newsletters skirt the controversy over aquifer cleanup, but Godec says he discusses the issue in detail with citizens' groups.
A review of records from 1983 to 1991 reveals that the most disturbing facts were either not presented to the public in context or were camouflaged in scientific jargon. There was no mention of the fact that scientists feared some of the TCE might never be removed from beneath the plant, but might instead continue polluting the groundwater for centuries. There was no mention of the raging national debate over whether TCE and other chemicals can ever be completely purged from many of the nation's aquifers.
Much of the blame for this communications blackout can be laid at the hands of the EPA itself, which allowed the state of Arizona to oversee "cleanup" of pollution caused by Motorola, the state's largest employer, even after it became a federal Superfund site in 1989.
Without sufficient federal scrutiny, DEQ did not always perform routine checks on the quality of the environmental data submitted by Dames and Moore, according to Mike Montgomery, the EPA's new Superfund liaison to the Motorola 52nd Street site. Montgomery says a new generation of state regulators is now carefully checking Motorola's data.
The state also created a clear conflict by allowing Dames and Moore to generate the public information spawned from its own unverified data.
DEQ now says it was a matter of simple economics. "If we tripled our staff, we couldn't get all our work done. One of the things that needs to be done is community relations. And that is costly," says Don Atkinson, DEQ project manager of the site from 1988 to 1991. Atkinson knows both sides of the fence. Before working at DEQ, he had been a hydrologist for a different Motorola consultant assigned to the 52nd Street site.
Once at DEQ, Atkinson approved what Dames and Moore could tell the citizens.
In six years, Motorola's consultants conducted only one public meeting. Both DEQ and Dames and Moore agreed that public meetings were unnecessary "due to the low public concern apparent to date," state records say.
Instead Dames and Moore hung a total of seven newsletters on doorknobs of approximately 5,000 homes, says Rozelle. Response cards were included "to assess community needs," but only 165 people returned the cards to Motorola. Motorola's consultant used the response cards to "gather concerns," says Rozelle.
Some citizens respectfully thanked Motorola for taking care of the pollution problem, for hanging the newsletter on their doors, for giving them the opportunity to be included on a future mailing list.
Others were angry. "I found this packet in the parking lot, not on my door. I was quite upset, as these reports should be delivered more carefully," wrote one resident. Another resident blasted Motorola for hiring a "wino" to deliver the newsletters. "Can't you afford stamps?" the resident asked.
Eventually, Dames and Moore did compile a mailing list of about 450 people. Less than one-third were residents--most on the list were officials and bureaucrats. Newsletters were mailed out to these people.
But the primary method of communicating to citizens continued to be the newsletter door-hangings.
The seven newsletters alluded to the disaster in technical jargon, but switched to simple English when emphasizing that there was no cause for alarm.
One newsletter, in 1988, says that "it is important to remember that the drinking water in this area does not come from the groundwater where these contaminants were found." Easy enough to understand.
Then the same newsletter reports the bad news this way: "The alternative remedies that are included in the draft RAP are designed as the next step in the cleanup of soil and groundwater contamination at Motorola's 52nd Street Plant. This step is considered partial cleanup and is called an operable unit. An operable unit is a term used by EPA to describe remediation that is one component of, but consistent with, a complete solution."
Translation: The final solution (for cleanup) has yet to be decided. Another newsletter reported that 1.4 million parts per billion of TCE was detected in groundwater beneath the Motorola plant. What the newsletter fails to note is that this is one of the highest pollution measurements in the United States. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says the maximum concentrations for TCE nationwide ranged from 900 to 27,000 parts per billion, substantially less than the Motorola reading.
A key fact left out by the newsletters: As far back as 1986, the state and Motorola were aware of the possibility that these very high concentrations of TCE could never be completely removed from the granite bedrock beneath the plant.
One former Dames and Moore hydrologist, who requested anonymity, tells New Times that the consultants informed the state and EPA "very early" that the TCE might never be completely pumped out from beneath the courtyard. The reason: High concentrations of TCE had probably sunk into deep fractures in the granite bedrock. "We knew early on at Motorola that we couldn't completely clean up the stuff underneath the courtyard," says the scientist. "We knew that stuff would be a source [of pollution] from here to eternity."
It would be nearly impossible to remove the chemical embedded in the fractures. Once in these cracks, the TCE might travel through the bedrock, possibly to infect other parts of the aquifer. Or the TCE might stay trapped in the fractures, slowly dissolving, releasing tiny particles of itself into the water above for "ever and ever," the former Dames and Moore scientist says.
Why wasn't this made clear in the newsletters?
James Hussey, who directs the cleanup project for Dames and Moore, says that newsletters are no place for technical debates.
When asked if the public, which owns the Valley's groundwater, should be told that this aquifer and others across the country might never be completely cleansed, he says: "I'm not sure I can answer that."
The key point is that anyone who wanted to look in public records could find the information in libraries listed in the newsletters, Hussey says.
Citizens simply weren't that interested until the lawsuits were filed, he says.
But citizens had not been alerted to problems. They had no reason to trudge over to DEQ or the Saguaro Library to pore through thousands of pages of highly technical hydrological reports.
Even for the most sophisticated researcher, the language in those technical reports is daunting.
Few citizens, for instance, could sift through Dames and Moore's 1990 Review of Bedrock Issues for the Motorola 52nd Street Facility and understand the discussion of chemicals in the fractured bedrock, explained in part this way: "In monitor wells closest to contaminant sources, the concentrations of contaminants are generally higher in the bedrock than the alluvium. . . . Small amounts (ounces) of undissolved (nonaqueous) contaminants have been detected, sporadically, in the bedrock at one on-site monitor well, MP 3, and in one recovery well in the courtyard area."
So far, only Velma Dunn has explained to the citizens that the aquifer may not be completely cleaned. "Most of us are just not that sophisticated to know what the environmental language means," she says.
Both the state and Dames and Moore say the public has been alerted to the fact that no one has come up with a "final remedy" for cleaning up the aquifer.
At that meeting, Alexis Strauss, the same EPA official who chastised the state for allowing Dames and Moore to inform the public, showed her own difficulty in communicating. In an attempt to explain that a solution to the contamination had yet to be found, she blurted: "An operable unit. . .is an action that you can take that you can separate from the final solution but yet it is consistent with what the final solution may be," she said of Motorola's plan to install a system of wells to pump out groundwater. "The reason you do it is to try to prevent or contain migration of contaminants, and it's something that ideally you can design and construct quite quickly.
"It's not the final solution, but it's a major step toward the final solution. It makes sense to get a part of this in place as soon as possible and build on it for the final solution," she went on.
Hussey himself spoke next: "As Alexis explained, this particular activity that we are discussing today involves a partial solution or an operable unit. What I will address are three alternatives which do not include the no action that we have evaluated to come to our recommended solution for the operable unit. The primary goal of that operable unit which is a partial solution at this time is to develop a plan that can effect cleanup efficiently and be implemented quickly."
With such communication from the government and the industry, citizens remained unaware of the severity of the environmental problem.
"I have walked around the neighborhoods. I sat on porches and drank beer with people. No one ever said anything about contamination," says Norman Fox, a neighborhood leader.
After learning that DEQ once accepted as gospel, without checking for quality, the environmental data provided by Motorola's consultants, and then entrusted the polluter to interpret the same statistics to the public, Fox no longer trusts the state.
An independent press acting as a watchdog might have been an effective check on this unusual industry-state alliance, but the media, with few exceptions, were not particularly vigilant.
For three years in the mid-1980s, journalist Kathleen Stanton reported the Motorola story for the Arizona Republic.
Stanton's stories were often critical of Motorola for not stating the severity of the contamination in the face of reports that showed the extent of the plume. Also, at the very time Motorola was pointing fingers at other industries (such as the Air National Guard) as potential TCE polluters, Stanton interviewed a former Motorola worker who remembered dumping TCE on the Motorola semiconductor plant property.
Now a freelancer in Tucson, Stanton says Dames and Moore "would never go to a community to give it bad news."
Because Motorola has always been viewed as a "benign and much-needed pillar of the Valley community," Stanton says, it was difficult for any reporter to convince an editor that spending time researching Motorola was more than a "fringy leftist witch hunt." Frank Lopez, who was city editor of the Arizona Republic at the time Stanton wrote most of her stories, says the "witch hunt" charge is unfounded. There was never any pressure from either Motorola or the editors to not write the stories. But he adds that environmental stories are not a favorite among editors--they are "perceived as being" boring by editors and readers alike.
There was "never, never, never, never" an editorial decision to play down stories on Motorola because of its prominent position in the community, echoes Richard Robertson, who became the newspaper's city editor in 1985.
Stanton stopped working on the story intensively in 1985, shortly before the controversy over aquifer cleanup erupted. She was assigned instead to cover the state's efforts to pass environmental laws. Following Stanton's transfer to other beats, the story receded even further into the background. When it was covered, it was often reported by less-experienced journalists for the weekly "community," or zoned, sections of the dailies.
For a brief time, Keith Bagwell, a reporter for a small daily in Scottsdale, tried to tell the story on a sporadic basis. But Bagwell's editors were not interested in a problem that didn't directly affect Scottsdale. Bagwell, now an environmental reporter in Tucson, remembers being frustrated that no other reporter seemed interested in the story he thought was so significant.
To date, the fact that this particular aquifer might never be cleansed of TCE has not been reported in the state's dailies.
The electronic media has provided bland and disjointed coverage of the complex story. Television news directors from all three networks say their stations have probably not given the story the coverage it deserves. Al Macias, executive editor of KPNX-TV, an NBC affiliate, says coverage has picked up since citizens began calling the station with story ideas about a year ago. Indeed, neither print nor television reporters were willing to tackle such a difficult story. "It's a terribly complex story and not an easy one to tell," says one TV news reporter. "You get lost in a morass of chemistry and organic compounds and statistical probabilities. Let's face it. The public's eyes glaze over."
for at least five years, there has been a potentially explosive debate within the scientific community over the inability of modern technology to remove chlorinated solvents like TCE from the nation's underground water supplies. "In my experience, the public thinks that if we can fly to the moon we ought to be able to get a few chemicals out of groundwater," says scientist Doug Mackay. The problem, he says, is that underground geology is far more complex than scientists originally envisioned ten years ago. Who could have guessed, for instance, that in sites like Motorola 52nd Street, TCE can sink into fractures in bedrock and stay there, slowly dissolving into the aquifer?
"The public is unaware that once aquifers are contaminated we are limited by the laws of nature," says Mackay.
Mackay serves on a National Research Council committee to evaluate pump-and-treat technology, the preferred technology for removing TCE from groundwater. The "major findings are pretty clear already," he says. Pump-and-treat cannot clean many aquifers, especially those with high concentrations of solvents in fractured bedrock.
Unfortunately, just one teaspoon of TCE will render 250,000 gallons of groundwater unfit for drinking, health officials say. TCE is suspected of causing leukemia, as well as disorders of the liver, kidney and central nervous system.
The "pump-and-treat" technology was supposed to remove chemicals like TCE from the nation's water supplies.
The technology pumps groundwater from the earth and shoots it through an air-stripping tower. TCE and other similar chemicals escape into the air and are captured in a filter. The water is then fit for drinking.
There are two problems with pump-and-treat technology. First, it does not reach into fractures in the bedrock, where some chemicals hide. Second, when the groundwater is pumped out, much of the TCE remains in the aquifer, glued to particles of sand and rock.
"Pump-and-treat" technology has been selected by the state and EPA as a "partial remedy" to help "clean up" the Motorola 52nd Street aquifer. Water that is pumped and treated is used for manufacturing in the plant. It is then discharged into the city sewer.
Motorola has spent nearly $30 million to take care of its TCE problems in the Valley. Still the contamination persists.
Some aquifers may not be cleansed by pump-and-treat for 1,000 years, says a 1991 report released by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The Department of Energy funded the report, which looked at 16 sites, many of which contained TCE. The sites had been "pumped and treated" from two to 12 years. In New Brighton, Minnesota, an ammunition factory polluted the aquifer and bedrock with TCE. After two years of pump-and-treat, the TCE concentrations remained virtually the same.
In South Brunswick, New Jersey, an electronics factory was contaminated with TCA and PCE, solvents that are cousins to TCE. After six years of pump-and-treat, the aquifer remained highly contaminated.
Oak Ridge researchers concluded that pump-and-treat has two good points. It may halt the spread of contaminated plumes of groundwater. It is excellent for ridding the water of solvents once the water is pumped out of the aquifer. But the report says pump-and-treat has been disappointing in cleaning the aquifers themselves. "Groundwater pumping is ineffective for restoring aquifers to health-based levels. This reality needs to be explicitly recognized by regulators," the report concludes.
Despite the obvious implications for the Valley, the findings of the Oak Ridge report were relegated to a small sidebar in the state's largest daily, as an afterthought to a 1991 story on contaminated industrial lagoons around the state. No mention whatsoever was made that the 52nd Street aquifer might not be completely cleaned for centuries.
State and federal regulators, as well as Hussey, of Dames and Moore, all acknowledge that they are aware of the controversy over this technology.
Indeed, as long ago as 1986, Dames and Moore informed the state that the aquifer might not be cleaned.
But to date, no written communiqus from any of these authorities have cited the Oak Ridge report or mentioned the national debate.
We're not out to make headlines, we're not out for glory," says Don Atkinson, the DEQ official who until very recently oversaw the Motorola 52nd Street Superfund site for the state. Why "panic" the people by telling them of the severity of the contamination or the uncertainty of the cleanup?
"The debate over what will work is still among the technical people for the most part," says Ed Fox, the DEQ director. "A lot of the science hasn't been peer-reviewed or tested."
Fox agrees that the national debate changes the nature of citizens' concerns. They no longer have to be worried about their health--pump-and-treat can cleanse solvents out of contaminated water, once it is pumped out of the ground.
But there are three immense problems that arise out of the possible failure of pump-and-treat:
One of the Valley's most productive aquifers, stretching from the plant on 52nd Street all the way to Tolleson, is threatened by this immense traveling plume of contamination from the Motorola plant, and, further downstream, by other industries.
The pollution may not be completely cleaned from the aquifer, despite Motorola's best efforts.
If cleanup stretches on for centuries, officials do not know how to predict the cost. Or who will pay. "The law still says the responsible party pays," says Fox, who has been mulling over these dilemmas for several months. He is not yet ready to say that pump-and-treat will not completely clean the aquifer, because the scientific debate is still ongoing. "No one has an answer," he says, "but we will have to look at the long-term issue."
Perhaps the state could somehow contain the polluted water with a network of pumps. Once corralled, the water would be pumped only as it is needed. Perhaps no effort should be made to return the filthy aquifers to their natural states.
But who pays? Perhaps the state could require polluters to put money in a water-cleanup trust fund. "The question then becomes, 'How much?,' and the answer is, 'Who knows?'" Fox says.
"What is the practical psychology and impact of that approach on the public?" asks Ed Fox.
rose marie augustine is intimately acquainted with the controversy over aquifer cleanup. But seven years ago, she didn't know what an aquifer was.
Seven years ago Augustine was a south Tucson grandmother who spent much of her time wondering why so many of her relatives and neighbors seemed to be getting sick.
She found the answers on May 19, 1985, the day she picked up the Arizona Daily Star and began reading the first of a series of articles detailing illnesses in south Tucson areas where people drank water contaminated by TCE. The pollution, discovered in 1981, had been linked to Hughes Aircraft.
The Arizona Daily Star series was written by a gritty journalist named Jane Kay. Before she sat down to write, Kay spent six months delving through public records, interviewing government officials, and trekking through south Tucson, where she interviewed and took health histories of 500 residents. After reporting her research to scientists at the University of Arizona and the National Cancer Institute, Kay concluded that there were high rates of certain illnesses, including leukemia and lupus, in the areas that received the most contaminated water.
Kay, now a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, received Arizona's highest journalism award in 1985--the Virg Hill Newsperson of the Year--for the series. Kay is out of the country on extended vacation and could not be reached for comment.
But her editor at the Tucson newspaper, Jon Kamman, recalls that the series took its toll on the reporter. She interviewed residents who were ill or dying, which was emotionally draining. She mastered thousands of pages of documents and scientific reports. She faced pressure from Kamman and other editors to complete the work more quickly. "We grew increasingly restless for it to come to fruition," recalls Kamman, now a business editor at a Phoenix daily. "We began to wonder if this was the Sistine Chapel. But our impatience was tempered by the fact that what she was doing needed a great deal of time and care."
Writing the series of 29 stories, he says, was particularly challenging. "People needed to know how just a little TCE is toxic in drinking water, and then we had to get across the idea that gallons of the stuff went into the groundwater. It was pretty frightening," he says.
Kay also was pressured by local officials who told her not to print the series because she would "panic" the citizenry, Kamman recalls.
Day after day Rose Marie Augustine followed the hard-hitting series, which was also carried by television stations. She felt she had answers now, for her lupus, for her husband's cancer, for the neighbors' maladies.
Kay's articles transformed Augustine into a community activist.
Within a few days, Rose Marie Augustine helped form a citizens group called Tucsonians for a Clean Environment, or TCE. The group is still active today. "We wanted to know what was going on," says Augustine. "We still do."
Augustine's group has always held community meetings, carrying information back and forth between citizens and bureaucrats.
She herself has joined several national groups that advocate for citizens faced with environmental disasters, including Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste and the National Toxics Campaign. She is also a member of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, a coalition of labor and minority groups fighting toxic waste.
Because of these associations, formed after Kay's articles alerted her to the pollution problems in Tucson, Rose Marie Augustine is becoming increasingly more adept at putting environmental regulators on notice that they are being scrutinized by a well-informed public. For instance, she has arranged for EPA Superfund administrator David McGovern to visit south Tucson later this month. On the agenda is a discussion of the failure of pump-and-treat technology to cleanse aquifers of TCE. The government did not tell Augustine of the pump-and-treat controversy. Hughes Aircraft did not tell Augustine of the controversy. The press did not tell Augustine of the controversy.
She learned of the controversy during a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with a national advocacy group. She learned because she had been motivated to become informed seven years ago by a newspaper reporter who did extraordinary work.
Among Augustine's other accomplishments:
When officials said south Tucson property values were not affected by the contamination, Augustine and her group vigorously disagreed. "You can't give a house away there," she says. The group pressured the Pima County Assessor to reassess the neighborhoods. After seven years, the assessor agreed, and the report is due later this summer.
When the federal ATSDR reported that there were no unusual illnesses in the area, Augustine cited Kay's articles and demanded another, more thorough study.
Because she doesn't trust water officials who say the water is now safe, she has demanded that the water officals be accompanied by citizens when they sample the wells. Citizens will send their own samples to an independent lab.
She has succeeded in getting the city and county to pledge a total of $500,000 for a clinic to treat residents with TCE-related illnesses.
She has organized mom-and-pop businesses to protest the proposed construction of a pipeline carrying TCE-contaminated water through south Tucson's main business street.
Augustine and about 2,000 other Tucsonians filed suit against Hughes, charging that the TCE pollution had made them ill. Without accepting blame, the company settled in 1990 for $85 million.
"I think the EPA and others are upset about our group being so active," she says. "We are informing people, and information is power."
Across the nation, community activists agree with Augustine that getting public information from the government is often stressful and unpleasant.
"Government officials seem to always say, 'Trust me, everything is under control. Don't worry,'" says Rand Wilson, a Boston, Massachusetts, community organizer for the Campaign for Responsible Technology, a citizens group that lobbies against industrial pollution. "The government views interested citizens as cranks and complainers. In fact, most activists do the public a tremendous service by getting the information out. They make democracy real in the deepest way."
In Arizona, residents in both Tucson and Phoenix felt let down by regulators. The difference was that for a brief period of time a journalist in Tucson struggled against overwhelming odds to keep the public informed.
Jane Kay had moved to a different state when the controversy emerged over pump-and-treat technology. But because Rose Marie Augustine became a citizen activist in 1985 as a result of Kay's series, she was several years ahead of her counterparts in Phoenix.
Pamela Swift is an abrasive environmentalist from southwest Phoenix who tests the limits of democracy. Because she has a confrontational personality, her effectiveness as an environmentalist has often been disputed. But no one disputes the fact that Pamela Swift is one of Arizona's first active environmentalists. For years she has traveled the state, attending public meetings at polluted sites, stirring up crowds, raising issues that were sometimes highly important and sometimes not germane at all.
Pamela Swift happened to attend the only public meeting on Motorola 52nd Street hosted by Dames and Moore. The audience was conservative and trusting of government, because they were never told anything alarming by regulators or polluters.
At the meeting, Swift instinctively blasted the bureaucrats for not telling the audience what was really going on.
Don Atkinson clearly resented the fact that activist Pamela Swift was present at the 1988 public meeting. "Ms. Swift and other interested parties were notified of the public meeting by mail," he scribbled in his notes shortly after the meeting. "We were going to send a cab for her but she preferred to ride on her broom."
Atkinson explains that he was tired when he wrote the note to himself, that perhaps he shouldn't have been so blunt.
But he did not appreciate Swift's sharp-tongued criticisms of either the state or Motorola. "We did our best to provide what was technically informative," he says. "I see no benefit in running around telling people that the worst site in the West is in their backyards."
The key thing, he says, is that Motorola, "the best dad-gummed responsible party," is cooperating to try to clean up the mess.
Perhaps it will be impossible to remove all the TCE from the site, he concedes.
But what is the point of alarming people about this when the company has spent millions trying to be a good corporate neighbor?
"You can always make headlines," Atkinson tells New Times. "But that won't change anything."
velma dunn recently was awarded a $50,000 EPA grant for citizen activists. The grant will allow Dunn to bring in her own experts to present their views to the public.
The way Velma Dunn sees things, the state allowed Dames and Moore to whitewash the information it passed down to citizens. This is the reason she didn't know about the plume stretching beneath the homes, she says.
"I don't know if I think information was whitewashed, I just don't think that enough emphasis was placed on informing the public and keeping them part of the process," says DEQ director Ed Fox. But with the government abdicating its duty to inform citizens to the suspected polluter for six years, and without a consistently vigilant press, angry citizens like Velma Dunn cannot come up with another conclusion.
Shortly after Velma Dunn informed neighborhood activists about the pollution, they formed a committee that meets weekly with DEQ.
Hardly a trusting group, this committee has convinced the state to conduct a door-to-door health study of neighbors on Brill Street. It is a major accomplishment, since state officials have long said people living near the plant have not suffered adverse health effects.
Some committee members have contended that the neighbors suffer high rates of cancer and other illnesses.
Velma Dunn's presence is a mixed blessing for DEQ director Fox. Dunn has pointed out several regulatory faux pas, like a yearlong gap between DEQ's written request for information and Motorola's response.
"These kinds of things are not acceptable," says Fox. "I cannot tell you why they happened."
But Fox worries that Dunn's frequent requests for public records might enventually end up in a lawsuit against DEQ itself. He worries that DEQ might "get sued for failing to take aggressive action" early on.
DEQ officials say that some of the lawyers have "panicked" the community by passing out erroneous information about health effects and pollution in hopes of recruiting clients.
Not too surprisingly, Velma Dunn is a plaintiff in one of the class-action lawsuits against Motorola. The lawsuit charges, among other things, that the chemical pollution caused serious health problems and declining property values.
Motorola has denied the allegations.
Motorola has also countersued Dunn for making "false and misleading statements" during neighborhood meetings. "I only told the truth," says Dunn. "They can't do anything to this old woman for telling the people the truth."
MOTOROLA: THE STORY SO FAR... v7-01-92
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.