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Marshmallow Roast

Kim MacEachern, Mary Simmerer and Peggy Guichard-Watters are women of unusual courage and honor.

But these three environmental regulators have learned, painfully, that in a government ruled by J. Fife Symington III, state workers who display courage and honor may well find their heads on the chopping block.

Three weeks ago, Symington's chief hand puppet at the Department of Environmental Quality, director Russell Rhoades, told MacEachern, who directed DEQ's water-quality division, to do something that was both unethical and stupid.

Rhoades demanded that MacEachern transfer Simmerer and Guichard-Watters, even though both were first-rate experts in drinking-water regulation, and even though neither had done anything wrong.

Still, Rhoades--whose obedience to Symington has earned him the nickname of Mr. Marshmallow--demanded that MacEachern exile these two water experts to boring, powerless corners of the DEQ bureaucracy, where they would have nothing to do with the regulation of drinking water. Forced to choose between saving her own skin and sacrificing Simmerer and Guichard-Watters, MacEachern did the only ethical thing.

She resigned.
Less than a week later, Rhoades did what MacEachern refused to do: He banished Simmerer and Guichard-Watters to the DEQ outback.

All of this happened because these three women did something unusual--at least, they did something unusual for the Symington administration. They did their jobs. They uncovered a real public-health threat involving the City of Scottsdale's drinking water, and they tried to protect the city's residents from that threat.

In 1995, Simmerer, then responsible for enforcing state drinking-water regulations, discovered that Scottsdale had served 70,000 residents water that contained dangerous amounts of a suspected carcinogen called TCE on 17 separate occasions in one short six-month period of 1994 and 1995. Her bosses, Guichard-Watters and MacEachern, supported her in a long and nerve-racking investigation of Scottsdale's water department.

Simmerer uncovered so much dirt--including a testing lab that allegedly falsified test data to make Scottsdale's water look clean and healthful when it wasn't--that the state and federal governments began criminal investigations of Scottsdale's water department. Both of those probes continue today.

Simmerer's hard, honest work put the City of Scottsdale in an embarrassing and, perhaps, expensive position. The city had been telling its citizens that nothing dangerous had happened, that there was no reason for alarm.

But Simmerer's investigation showed that a few city workers apparently had known that TCE-contaminated water had been served to the populace--as it was happening. That knowledge could open the city to a troublesome class-action lawsuit with especially sympathetic victims: pregnant mothers, infants, small children, the frail and the elderly, among others.

Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana and her city council of real estate agents responded to Simmerer's revelations not by sacking the city staffers responsible for allowing contamination into city water. No, the mayor decided she would push for a cover-up, lobbying Governor Symington and Rhoades to punish not the wrongdoers, but Simmerer, the person who had uncovered the wrongdoing.

There has to be a reason Mayor Campana chose the cover-up route, and I think I know what it is. I think Campana didn't want Scottsdale citizens to know something. I think the mayor didn't want anyone to know that the Scottsdale city government had served unhealthful water to its citizens simply because pumping tainted water was cheaper and more politically expeditious than shutting it off.

Consider these facts:
The drinking water in question had been produced by a treatment plant designed to strip TCE from groundwater pumped out of Scottsdale's North Indian Bend Wash Superfund site. Although it was operated by the city, that plant had been built by Motorola and the other high-tech firms that had polluted the groundwater under the wash years before. Motorola is, quite simply, the biggest political power in Scottsdale and one of the most powerful political bullies in Arizona.

After Simmerer, MacEachern and Guichard-Watters discovered that the TCE plant was not working, they joined forces with the Environmental Protection Agency and shut down the plant. During the period the plant was shut down, Scottsdale was forced to buy water from the City of Phoenix, at a cost of more than $1 million. This is precisely the sort of expense the city was trying to avoid when it attempted to hide that the TCE plant wasn't working. But the city's cover-up push wasn't entirely based on money. Politics was also involved.

A testing laboratory, Westech Laboratories Inc., was at the center of Scottsdale's TCE scandal. Westech's state license to test drinking water had been suspended, in part because of allegations it falsified test results of Scottsdale water, telling state regulators the water was clean when it actually contained illegal amounts of TCE. The lab's rich, politically connected owners have whined to the governor and anyone who will listen that they have been picked on by the state.

 

Before it was hired to test Scottsdale's water, Westech worked for Motorola, that 800-pound political gorilla.

Kim MacEachern, Mary Simmerer and Peggy Guichard-Watters didn't care about the money or the politics of Scottsdale's TCE problem. They just wanted to protect Scottsdale's citizens from drinking water contaminated with a dangerous chemical.

All three women refused to comment last week, for reasons that should be obvious. But here's what I've been able to learn about them through other means.

MacEachern, a plumber's daughter who has not forgotten her blue-collar roots, is a plucky, honest lawyer, a wife and mother. She attended Arizona State University law school when she was pregnant and studied for the state bar exam with her baby in her lap.

Two years ago, she was a prosecutor in the environmental unit of the Arizona Attorney General's Office when Ed Fox, the outgoing DEQ director, hired her to head the agency's water-quality division. Fox tells me he hired MacEachern not only for her brains, but for her high ethical standards.

Guichard-Watters began working for MacEachern two years ago. I've covered DEQ since the agency was created in 1986, and I can tell you that Guichard-Watters has been the best administrator of the drinking-water section since its inception. She made it more efficient, more responsive to the public and industry, more protective of the public health.

Long before she signed on with DEQ, Mary Simmerer was a lab technician in hospitals. She has drawn the blood from the veins of little children dying of cancer. She joined the state environmental agency several years ago.

One example of her mettle involves a clash a couple of years back with then-state representative (now state Senator) Russell Bowers over a small water company in the St. Johns area. The company was serving residents water laced with a radioactive isotope thought to cause bone cancer.

When powerhouse Bowers lashed out at peon Simmerer during a hearing on the radioactive water, he noted with pride that his ancestors had drunk the water in the St. Johns area for years.

That explains a lot.
It explains to me how Bowers' gene pool became so badly damaged, and why he keeps ranting and raving in such dangerous ways about eliminating state environmental laws and firing DEQ employees.

But Simmerer had too much class to mention Bowers' behavior problems in public. Instead, she told the Arizona Republic that Bowers should care about the welfare of water users, not a water company. "There are four million people who drink water in the state," she said. "So what constituency should you listen hardest to?"

Simmerer was just as defiant when regulating the City of Scottsdale.
Her careful review of drinking-water forms submitted by Scottsdale to state regulators uncovered remarkable irregularities. And lies. As Simmerer pressed her investigation, the City of Scottsdale grew increasingly hostile. Simmerer's bosses, MacEachern and Guichard-Watters, offered encouragement and support.

In December, Simmerer testified for the state in legal proceedings aimed at revoking Westech's license. In her testimony, Simmerer chronicled a trail of deceit left by the lab--and by the City of Scottsdale.

Mayor Campana was upset when this newspaper published a report detailing the scandal.

The City of Scottsdale, you see, has always claimed it follows state drinking-water laws. The city has always claimed that dangerous and illegal levels of TCE were not reported to the state simply by misunderstanding. The City of Scottsdale has always claimed it cares about the health of its citizens.

But Mary Simmerer caught Scottsdale in a cover-up. She proved that some city officials knew--or should have known--that citizens were being served unhealthful water. Embarrassed, the City of Scottsdale decided to make Mary Simmerer a scapegoat.

In the weeks that followed public revelation of the Scottsdale TCE scandal, Campana told me that the city had complained to the governor and DEQ director Rhoades about "one DEQ employee" who was unreasonable in her dealings with the city.

We know from testimony and other public records that Westech has been whining about state regulation for two years.

And we also know that Russell Rhoades, whom Symington appointed to replace Ed Fox, is a man who has never distinguished himself in his career as an environmental regulator. After arriving at DEQ from a stint at EPA in Texas, Rhoades earned the office nickname of "Mr. Marshmallow."

What happened next is pretty obvious.
Somebody got to Mr. Marshmallow. I don't know if it was the governor, or Scottsdale officials, or Bowers, or Westech, or Motorola--or all of them.

But Rhoades caved. He asked MacEachern to remove Simmerer and Guichard-Watters from the drinking-water section--even though those employees had done exactly what should have been done about the Scottsdale TCE scandal. When MacEachern refused, Rhoades ordered the exile of those water experts himself. Simmerer now handles a data-processing unit; Guichard-Watters is an administrator of solid-waste programs. These jobs are boring enough, and the pressure on the women remains high enough, that they may not be able to endure their new posts. They may well leave the agency, which is probably what Mr. Marshmallow hopes for.

 

In carrying out this shameful pogrom, Russell Rhoades sent a clear message to other DEQ employees: Honesty and hard work will not be tolerated at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

By writing about his sleazy retaliation against these three public employees--these women who should be heroes--I hope I've sent Mr. Marshmallow a different message: We are watching. We've stoked the campfire. And we're getting ready for a good, old-fashioned roasting.


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