Gordon Rosier wants sand and gravel mines out of Sun City and nearby communities.
Emily Piraino

Dust Up in Sun City

Last April, the doctors gave James Manak some painkillers and sent him home to die.

After months of unexplained chest pain and difficulty breathing, Manak was diagnosed with a rare, untreatable form of cancer called mesothelioma. At 81, he wasn't so shocked by the death sentence, but he was surprised to learn his disease is in almost all cases linked to asbestos.

James and his daughter Connie thought hard about when he could have been exposed to asbestos. Manak had worked for the phone company in the suburbs of Chicago most of his life, in teletype. No asbestos there. He did recall that for a very brief time he had a job putting linings in telephones back before the war, 60 years ago, Connie says, which could have involved asbestos. But the doctors told her that would likely have been too long ago to match up with this diagnosis.

Experts say mesothelioma comes between 20 and 40 years after exposure to asbestos, although some say it can occur after even less time. It is considered the worst of asbestos-related diseases.

The cruel irony was how healthy Manak had been before he got sick. A few years back he'd had prostate cancer and borderline diabetes, but he'd changed his lifestyle and gotten better.

"I was really proud of him because my dad was one who liked to eat and liked to sleep and he really changed his ways and took care of himself," says Connie.

The Manaks never imagined that James could have been exposed to asbestos after he left the work force, perhaps when he moved to Sun City, Del Webb's idyllic retirement community west of Phoenix.

But that's what some people think. James Manak built a house in Sun City in the '70s, moving there permanently in 1984. His wife died in 1992, but Manak continued to enjoy retirement living -- leading a prayer group, volunteering at the senior center and driving a truck for the local food bank -- until he fell ill.

Manak had many friends, among them another Sun City retiree named Gordon Rosier. Rosier is one of a small group of Sun City residents determined to shut down the dozens of sand and gravel pits in the Agua Fria River near Sun City, operations they say bring dust, noise and pollutants to their serene surroundings. And they're not afraid to use the word "cancer" to achieve their goal.

They've convinced the federal Mining Safety and Health Administration to test the Agua Fria for asbestos, which is supposed to be taking samples near Sun City sometime this year. Those results won't be available for months, at least. (MSHA officials did not return repeated calls for comment.)

No one has linked sand and gravel operations with asbestos-related cancer. The activists say they suspect that naturally occurring asbestos is in the dust that's being stirred up by mining operations, and spread across the community.

Rosier's strongest proof so far: preliminary figures from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health showing that zip codes in the Sun City area near the sand and gravel pits have among the highest rates of mesothelioma in the county -- in fact, among the highest in the country.

County epidemiologists warn that since the numbers are so low -- they always are, where mesothelioma is concerned, because it's so incredibly rare -- the statistics are hard to rely on. Much more detailed analysis needs to take place to determine, among other things, how long the mesothelioma victims lived in Sun City, whether they lived in clusters, and whether they could have been exposed to asbestos elsewhere.

"I guess if I were them, I'd be screaming for more research," says Mare Schumacher, the county's deputy director of epidemiology. She warns that it could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But while even the lobbyist for Arizona sand and gravel operators says he wants the research done, there's no indication that the county is ready to spend another penny in this endeavor.

The preliminary report on mesothelioma in Maricopa County was completed in September. Since then, there's been no action to do anything beyond it.

"At this time we agree that further study is probably necessary," says Doug Hauth, spokesman for the county's Department of Public Health. "But we'll have to investigate how we're going to go about it, because we'll have to go down and ask the Board of Supes [Supervisors] and the Board of Health how they want to split up the money."

As for the timing? "I have no projections," Hauth says.

Max Wilson, the Maricopa County supervisor who represents the area, isn't ready to spend any money. His staff says Wilson is waiting to hear the results of the Mining Safety and Health Administration's tests along the Agua Fria before he decides whether to push for further research into mesothelioma rates in Sun City.

Gordon Rosier was concerned about asbestos long before his friend James Manak fell ill. Rosier, a retired elementary school teacher, moved to Sun City from Washington state, where he was also an environmental activist.

Rosier has found the obstacles in Arizona politics to be far more formidable.

In January 2001, Rosier was elected to the board of the Sun City Homeowners Association. He quickly joined forces with a few others concerned about noise and pollution from the sand and gravel pits surrounding the community, as well as the accompanying diesel trucks that continually pass through. Although most people think of the power of AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) when they think of elderly activists, Rosier says Sun City is quiet in comparison. Many folks didn't want to make noise about the sand and gravel pits for fear that home values would plummet.

And certainly, some were probably content with their lot, considering they moved to Sun City knowing that the mining operations were in place. In fact, as the sand and gravel folks like to point out, their operations built Sun City.

Rosier and his cronies contend that the mining operations have expanded greatly in recent years. Both the activists and the miners are right. The bottom line, Rosier says, is that the mining operations simply are not compatible with residential living -- particularly not retirement living.

But Rosier is up against what is arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in the state, the Arizona Rock Products Association. Rusty Bowers, who stepped down after several terms in the Arizona Legislature and is now the group's executive director, is a formidable opponent. And the stakes are particularly high because, as Bowers freely admits, the materials mined in the Agua Fria are among the best anywhere.

Rosier was disappointed in efforts during the 2002 legislative session to get through what he saw as any meaningful reforms in the law. He was further frustrated when Jan Brewer, who represented Sun City on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and left to run for Secretary of State, was replaced by Max Wilson, who leases land to sand and gravel miners in the area. (Sun City, which is unincorporated, is under county control.)

Wilson has been nonresponsive, Rosier says. Wilson's chief of staff, Scott Isham, says his boss is committed to making the area safe.

Unsatisfied, Rosier went looking for more help. He went to the federal government -- specifically, the Mining Safety and Health Administration, which coincidentally was already holding a series of hearings around the country on asbestos in mining operations. He convinced MSHA to come to Phoenix, and to test the Salt River (another area with dozens of sand and gravel mines) for asbestos.

Bowers celebrates the results -- just one possible incidence of asbestos was found, and later discounted. But Rosier contends that's not conclusive, because MSHA only tests for six types of asbestos fibers, when there are many more that go undetected.

Now, Rosier is eagerly waiting to hear the results of testing in the Agua Fria. Bowers is convinced there will be nothing. Unlike the Salt River, which actually does get drainage from asbestos sources near the town of Globe, there is no known source of asbestos leading to the Agua Fria, Bowers says. Of course, that leaves out the possibility of naturally occurring asbestos in the river bed.

Bowers is furious with Rosier, who has extended his fight beyond senior citizens to schoolchildren in nearby communities that also sit near sand and gravel pits -- including the newly built Zuni Hills Elementary School in Peoria, which has a remarkable view of a nearby cement plant.

Rosier is a frequent target of Bowers' amusing, unorthodox (some might say inappropriate) rants on the Arizona Rock Products' Web site.

Bowers calls the asbestos claims the latest "spaghetti" Rosier and his "Raiders" have tossed at the wall -- trying to find something that will stick.

In one recent posting, Bowers writes, "Gordon Rosier continues to radicalize the Sun City folks away from their base . . . a community of people that have conservative principles and a respect for their fellow men and the structure of their government that allows them to retire and enjoy their golden years without fear that what they worked to acquire won't be wrenched out from under them. Now, more and more, with each wild-eyed charge and countercharge, Gordon and a select group of like-minded buddies are succeeding in leading the trusted and tried seniors on a pied-piper waltz of elitist demagoguery to a promised land to be feared rather than respected. Left un-addressed, their actions will steal the honest labor and property of tens of thousands of their neighbors. They have been forthright in their hypocritical demands: We need their [rock] products, we just don't want them,' even professing to a newly found love and protective desire for the local children, all the while making outlandish claims and statements that would result in higher living costs and less employment for those very families."

But in a later conversation, Bowers tells New Times that while he's certain the tests will be clean, he takes any risk of asbestos very seriously.

"Asbestos is just off the scale of importance to us. The slightest hint that there is asbestos in a mining operation, to our guys, is just, Stop everything.' If they have information that there is asbestos in our pits that will obviously affect our workers first, then we want to know," he says.

As for his workers, Bowers continues, "We don't have any epidemiological stuff that would show a pattern nor any hits that we know of."

It's not so easy to show a pattern of asbestos-related deaths, particularly if all you're looking at is mesothelioma.

The most famous recent case of such deaths took place in Libby, Montana, a small mining town in the northwestern part of the state. Hundreds of deaths have been linked to asbestos in a now-closed mine near the town, but a federal study of the community of 2,500 over an 11-year period showed just four deaths from mesothelioma -- that's how rare it is. More common were deaths from lung cancer, digestive-tract cancer and pulmonary circulation difficulties.

So perhaps those diseases need to be examined in Sun City as well. That is a difficult proposition under the best circumstances, but would be much more difficult, given Sun City's elderly population. The figures provided by the Maricopa County Department of Public Health do show that even when you examine only patients over 60, the Sun City area does have a much higher rate of mesothelioma. But, as the county's Mare Schumacher points out, Sun City also has many more residents over 60.

The research challenges will be great, even if the money is made available.

Gordon Rosier and other members of the Sun City Homeowners Association Board have resigned in recent months, frustrated because the board won't do more to fight the sand and gravel operations. Jim Corchoran, the association's first vice president, says the board does want to pay for independent testing in the Agua Fria -- for asbestos as well as other pollutants -- but does not have the $7,700 needed for the two-week procedure.

"While we do feel it may be necessary to do that testing, at the present time the amount of funding that would be necessary is too great. It would deplete our coffers too much on a one-shot deal," says Corchoran, who hopes Sun City residents will donate to the cause.

Why not just wait for the feds to do their testing, through the Mining Safety and Health Administration?

"They're all in the same bed," Corchoran says of MSHA and the Arizona Rock Products Association. "Everything's perfect. They'll make sure everything's perfect."

James Manak died on August 22, with harp music playing.

"He was a good man. God blessed him with a peaceful death," his daughter Connie says.

Manak had a good sense of humor up to the end. A couple of days before he died, the hospice chaplain came into his room and spoke of another patient named Bill. When he left, the chaplain said, "Well, Bill, I'll see you later."

Connie recalls that her dad said, "You know, this medication they're giving me is getting everyone confused."

His prayers were for everyone else who suffered with cancer, she says.

"Dad would want his experience and his death to be able to help somebody else. He really would. He really would."


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