Q: Who's Buried in Grant's Tomb?
While the state's high-tech elite occupied center stage with their supercollider capers last year, there was not a word said about a luscious, and much more accessible, little toxic-waste research plum being dangled by federal officials.
Arizona's academic and political leaders spared no expense or publicity stunt in pursuit of the supercollider, which was a super-long shot with no assured funding from the federal government. Local presses and airwaves were drenched with breathless super-hype about Arizona's proximity to world greatness--until last November, when it was announced that Texas and its huge congressional delegation had won it (as insiders had predicted all along).
But when the EPA winners of five high-tech, million-dollar toxic-waste research centers were announced last month by the Environmental Protection Agency, the news went as unnoticed as if it had happened on another planet.
"This was one of the most important and hotly sought-after research projects we've ever done," says Karen Morehouse, who oversees the centers for EPA's Office of Research and Development in Washington, D.C. "But I don't think we even got an inquiry from anyone in Arizona."
Morehouse and other EPA research administrators say the project was relevant to Arizona, where toxic wastes have been found in more than 400 wells and 60 percent of the population depends on groundwater. And it was available despite tough competition. "It is by no means overreaching to think Arizona could have competed successfully for this grant," Morehouse says. "In fact, there were a lot of states who thought their universities were a shoo-in because they had the reputation or the size and who got a rude shock."
The project apparently was a hot topic elsewhere. "There was an enormous amount of beating on EPA by the competing states and their congressional delegations to win these grants," Morehouse recalls. "I don't think a day passed that someone from Colorado didn't truck through our offices and [Utah Senator] Jake Garn tried to rip our budget apart when Utah, which was a finalist, didn't win."
Yet officials at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona talk as if they barely remember the project and hardly took it seriously. "I don't recall that one," says John Burchard, assistant director of ASU's Office of Research Development and Administration. "I don't think we submitted a proposal . . . . I don't know why not, although in general, if we don't have faculty interested in that area, we don't have anyone who could write a proposal."
Burchard, who ran a major EPA research facility in North Carolina before joining ASU several years ago, says he wishes the university was doing more environmental research. "I hope to build our program in this area," he says. "After all, we do have a, uh, a Center for Ecological Research, I believe it's called." (Actually, it's called the Center for Environmental Studies.)
EPA officials never did find out why Arizona was conspicuously absent from the fray. "We heard it might have something to do with that weird little guy--what was his name?--who was your governor for a while," she says. "We heard from several people that Arizona wasn't interested because of some cockamamie rule he had, or had proposed, that would prohibit bringing hazardous waste into the state, even for purposes of researching cleanup methods."
Nick Hild, an adjunct professor with ASU's Center for Environmental Studies, denies that "the weird little guy" (Evan Mecham, for you newcomers) was responsible for Arizona's torpid reaction. Hild acknowledges receiving the EPA invitation to bid on the million-dollar regional research center but says he decided it wasn't worth the bother.
"There were so many different things you had to do just the way they wanted it done, down to the details of how research was conducted," Hild says. "There was no money in it for equipment, and we didn't have the equipment . . . that is, the equipment we needed is here at ASU but scattered among departments, and the university has never been very good at coordinating sharing agreements. It's a problem all over campus. And the university wouldn't give us our own equipment."
Then there was the obstacle of the matching monies required by EPA (20 percent of the $1 million). Hild admits he never even contacted the governor's office or state environmental officials for help on that one, saying he foresaw headaches pulling the local funding together. "We didn't explore getting state funds for the matching share, probably because we've seen the state was not a good source of funds for environmental research in the past," Hild says.
Why not give Governor Rose Mofford a chance to make the research center as much of a cause as was the supercollider? "The real bottom-line reason we didn't apply," Hild says, "was because we thought the California schools were already in line to get the money, based on what some EPA folks in San Francisco told us." Hild adds that he can't remember who at EPA uttered the discouraging words.
The only involvement by Arizona in the fierce bidding over the EPA grants was the University of Arizona's participation as a very minor partner in an application by the California Institute of Technology, Morehouse says. "It was clear from the proposal that the UofA was included as a sort of `poor sister' who could dance to Cal Tech's tune," she recalls. "The discussion of problems was all focused on California, Cal Tech was going to do all the research on their campus, and regional problems such as pollution from hard-rock metal mining were utterly disregarded."
UofA chemical engineer Jost Wendt, the university's liaison on the Cal Tech proposal, says he and his colleagues threw in with the prestigious California school because "it was thought Cal Tech was in the strongest position."
"They already had a written proposal for another hazardous-waste research center, which had been rejected, but which they dusted off and resubmitted to EPA," Wendt says. "We thought they knew what they were doing, but that turns out to have been a mistake. We could have done a better job ourselves.
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.