TALES FROM THE DARK WEST SIDE
Like Rottweilers, Pam Swift and Teri Johnson fight with a deep, dark instinct. Sometimes, you wonder why these two west Phoenix environmentalists don't shut up. Other times, you can't help but admire them for fighting battles somebody's got to fight.
One of them always seems to be on TV, marching and protesting. You will often see them when the cameras cover meetings of the Maryvale leukemia cluster, ranting at their "enemy"--state bureaucrats from the Department of Health Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. Sometimes, when they face off in a windowless room--the tightlipped women against the tightlipped bureaucrats--the air is so thick with hatred from both sides you can hardly inhale. Occasionally, Johnson brings along a baby she's watching. Often, Swift shows up with a video recorder to document the meetings. "Deep Throat it ain't," she'll sarcastically say.
"We have to go to those meetings and be obnoxious bitches and stick the knife in and twist it because they've been lying to us from the git-go," says Swift.
More moderate environmentalists say people like Swift and Johnson are so fringey, bitter and paranoid no bureaucrat or politician will listen to them, and so the women can't effect any change in the state's environmental and health policies. But that's not true. When the moderates lose interest in subjects like the strange outbreak of childhood leukemia in Maryvale, Swift and Johnson keep putting the heat on bureaucrats studying the tragedy, letting them know the public is looking over their shoulder. Of course, even when state workers do a good job, the activists suspect them of covering up. Sometimes it's hard to tell who's right.
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Back in June 1987, New Times broke the news that there seemed to be a cluster of childhood leukemia in Maryvale, an area contaminated by polluted air, soil and groundwater. The state had failed for three years to thoroughly investigate the cancer cluster, which was centered at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School. But the news of the cluster prompted the public to pressure state health officials to launch studies, under the eye of a scientists panel appointed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The first studies have confirmed the existence of a leukemia cluster, but experts say the probable cause may never be pinned down.
But the activists have always suspected the experts are covering up. These days, Swift says she's caught DHS in yet another cover-up.
Last week, DHS confirmed that six more west-side kids have gotten leukemia since 1987.
Swift and Johnson say they've heard rumors that two other St. Vincent students have contracted leukemia, and the activists have repeatedly asked the health department to confirm or deny it. The activists say if the rumor is true, there might be an environmental problem on school grounds.
St. Vincent's administrators have said over and over that they've not heard of any new cases of leukemia among their students. The school says it has already run extensive environmental tests and found its grounds were perfectly safe.
The health department does not deny there may be more cases of leukemia at the school, but refuses to investigate the matter, other than to ask school administrators whether the allegations are true. In what seems like a familiar case of bureaucratic doublespeak, DHS says it can't investigate the rumor because it must protect the integrity of future scientific studies.
The way DHS looks at it, if you gather preliminary information--such as counting leukemia cases at the school--before you've designed a formal study, you're biasing the study. A statistics expert at Harvard agrees with DHS' seemingly strange logic about not biasing the study.
"Obviously, we're not trying to hide anything from anybody. We want to get to the bottom of this," says Dr. Steve Englender, director of DHS' division of disease prevention. But the health agency also admits it doesn't want to unduly alarm the public about the school.
The west-side activists aren't buying any excuses. "They're just trying to protect that school," grumbles Swift. "The cover-up goes deep."
"I don't think they should make allegations like that when they don't know if they are true," says Timothy Flood, a DHS doctor who's worked on the cancer studies for three years. "Of course they can say whatever they want, regardless of whether it's true."
But Swift and Johnson point to what they see as other evidence of cover-up. After months of promising a so-called $470,000 "case-control study" to look into possible causes of the cluster, Flood now says he may not be able to do it. He says he may not find enough families of victims to study, and if he doesn't find enough families, he may not get reliable statistical results.
In which case the state would have to conduct a less formal study, a quickie exercise that other scientists would have a field day shooting holes into. Until they decide what study to do, and how they're going to do it, DHS doctors refuse to give the public any idea of what might have caused the leukemia.
The activists, of course, think they smell a whitewash. TO RESIDENTS, it seems like DHS' health studies of Maryvale have crawled along at a snail's pace. After three years, state doctors have confirmed two things. First, there's a high rate of childhood leukemia in Maryvale. Second, it's lasted for at least 21 years. DHS staffers have said 49 kids got leukemia from 1965 to 1986. That's twice the rate in the rest of Maricopa County. The DHS also confirmed that twice as many west-side kids died of leukemia than would be expected based on rates in the United States as a whole. Nine of these young victims attended St. Vincent de Paul School at 51st Avenue and Indian School.
In the wake of the earliest Maryvale revelations, Swift and Johnson helped jolt the state into action. Maryvale--and most of the rest of the west Valley--is a working-class area where houses were built on land once heavily used for agriculture and industry. The groundwater beneath the area is seriously polluted with industrial chemicals, having forced the closure of four drinking-water wells. All city drinking water on the west side is now considered safe by health officials because most of it is imported via the canals from reservoirs. But the groundwater pollution in the west Valley is spreading, and more west-side wells are in danger of being polluted unless DEQ moves fast. Swift and Johnson frequently taunt the agency bureaucrats for not moving faster.
The bureaucrats say they're moving as fast as they possibly can. DEQ officials have just started enforcing groundwater pollution cleanup on the west side and are monitoring for pesticide residue in the soil of parks and homes--with mixed results.
"People think it's taking forever, but it's hard to find qualified people who want to work for the state. Not everybody likes to work for the state and be called a heel," says Tom Curry, a DEQ staffer charged with enforcing the cleanup of the so-called "tank farm" area at 51st Avenue and Van Buren, where petroleum is stored in twelve huge tanks. PAM SWIFT AND TERI JOHNSON have been asking DHS for a year now to check out St. Vincent de Paul School. They say they've heard rumors that since 1986, one and possibly two students at the school have leukemia. The significance, Swift says over and over, is that the school, with a long history of leukemia among its students, may "still have a problem"--a sort of cluster within a cluster that deserves environmental scrutiny if such rumors are true.
School officials have repeatedly denied that any students have recently come down with the disease. DHS bureaucrats refuse to compare their list of recent victims with school rosters, saying such a cursory check would compromise future studies by biasing the data. It may sound crazy to a layperson, but a Harvard biostatistician agrees. Until DHS officials know for sure whether they're going to conduct a study of the cluster's possible causes, it's hands off the data, which would include information from the Catholic school, says Stephen Lagakos, who serves on the committee overseeing the studies. Looking at data before a decision is made to do a study is just not scientific, he says.
"We're not stonewalling," insists DHS director Ted Williams. "It's just very important to ensure this scientific process is pure." But it seems like good science isn't the only reason DHS is dragging its feet. Williams says he doesn't want to "excite the community without a basis."
"If the public doesn't like us, that's irrelevant," Williams says. "We want to do a good job."
Flood admits there are other reasons for his reluctance to look into whether the school has a leukemia problem. "I don't think it's worth the work," he says bluntly. "I don't think we should focus or continue to raise doubts about the school. I don't think it's helpful. . . . I don't see what the big deal is, anyway." Flood says the school and "any problem" will be checked out thoroughly and scientifically either by DHS or by Dr. Michael Lebowitz, a scientist who is paid to represent the school and other west-side interests in the health studies. Flood says the public should know within a year whether it has a continuing leukemia problem. Of course, the activists are suspicious. "DHS is stonewalling us," says Teri Johnson. "They're afraid if they find anything that the school will close down."
Dr. David Ozonoff, an epidemiologist with the Boston University School of Public Health and a strong advocate for community environmentalists, says, "Questions of panic and hysteria are very real--not among the public, but among public officials who don't like to deal with the public. So health departments wind up essentially stonewalling . . . . The health department is obligated to look into this, whether or not it shares the results with the community." TOM CURRY AND ANA VARGAS are paid salaries in the $25,000-to-$30,000 range to study the waste habits of multimillion-dollar corporations. The two state health bureaucrats hope to ferret out guilty parties and force them to clean up plumes of contaminated groundwater on west-side state Superfund sites.
They are outgunned and outmanned by industrial lawyers and scientists, but their boss at DEQ, Sandra Eberhardt, contends that they face off against these heavyweights "without a blink." And they also have to face people in the community--like Swift and Johnson--who think they're deadbeats.
Environmentalists feel DEQ is dragging its feet, that it doesn't have the teeth to go after huge industrial polluters. They point out that the underground pollution has been known about for nearly a decade, and it's getting worse.
Vargas, a mother of two young children who likes to work at home when she can, is in charge of the so-called "West Central Phoenix" site in Maryvale proper. The state has budgeted $1.6 million to enforce the cleanup of the site, and the feisty Vargas expects industries to start cleanup in eighteen months. It may take twenty years to get the groundwater clean enough to drink safely.
She thinks she's found some major polluters of an underground plume of solvent contamination that stretches from 59th Avenue to 27th Avenue, from McDowell to Campbell. She discovered that in the Fifties and Sixties gallons of solvents such as the degreaser TCE were dumped into septic tanks, and so into the groundwater, in a semiconductor manufacturing area she calls the "West Osborn Complex" at 35th Avenue and Osborn Road. Several huge industries, including Corning, Nucor, and United Industrial Corporation, once operated electronics factories in that area.
Because of alleged dumping into septic tanks, TCE has been found in quantities as high as 250 times the federal health standard in a two-mile plume of groundwater pollution.
Because the groundwater travels west and southwest, four City of Phoenix drinking-water wells were closed down because of unhealthy levels of TCE. The wells supplied water to 20,000 Maryvale residents in the Sixties, Vargas suspects. Several other wells that supply water to 50,000 people are safe now, but are threatened by the traveling gunk, she says.
Nucor and Corning have cooperated with DEQ and are starting cleanup, but United Industrial has denied it did any polluting and is expected to battle DEQ in federal court soon. "We're not sitting here doing nothing," Vargas says. "They might think we're bluffing, but we're not. We're going to push all the way."
Vargas' colleague Tom Curry hasn't been quite as successful in finding the polluters for his west-side site, which includes the "tank farm" at 51st Avenue and Van Buren. Curry's site sprawls over 25 square miles and stretches from Seventh Avenue to 75th Avenue and McDowell Road to the Salt River. Called the West Van Buren Site, the area has so many underground contaminants that Curry has been unable to chart all the plumes.
You'd get mighty sick if you ever drank the groundwater here. Fortunately, the city has no drinking-water wells in the area. Solvents such as TCE exceed 350 times the federal standard for healthy drinking water, while gasoline products in the groundwater beneath the tank farm exceed the health standard by 360,000 times.
This year, the state has allotted $1.27 million for cleanup of the West Van Buren Site, but Curry says companies have already spent millions of dollars. Of the twelve tank-farm tenants, his pets are Chevron and Union Oil of California, who are "very cooperative" and have started cleanup. He says he "couldn't even guess~" how many years--or decades--it will take to clean up the pollution.
And it's already taken five years to get to this point. Why? "I wish things would move a lot faster," he says. Then he picks up a thick report put out by an oil company. "Sometimes it takes me a week to read one of these things," he says. "And I have two other sites besides this one. This is a stressful job. For a while, the turnover in this office was 56 percent, which means that the institutional memory on this stuff is not too good. We have to fill a form for every phone call we get. Plus people like Mrs. Melody Baker [another environmental activist] are always coming to see us and we have to drop everything for them. And our law [the state Superfund law that went into effect in 1977] is being constantly tested."
He pushes his thick glasses up against his nose. He looks at the enormous map that spreads across the walls of his small cubicle. He's got thousands of potential polluters on his map--truck shops, dry cleaners, electronics factories. It's just a matter of tracking down all the information. And then fighting the polluters who claim they're clean.
"What we need," he says, shaking his head, "are a lot more people working here."
FOR MONTHS THE ACTIVISTS have nagged DEQ official Brian Munson and anyone else who would listen to sample soil at St. Vincent de Paul School for pesticides. After all, they have said over and over, the school had a lot of leukemia victims at one time. "What're you trying to hide?" Swift might shout at a meeting. "We feel the DEQ is trying to protect the school," Johnson might tell a TV reporter.
Their focus is an upcoming DEQ test of soil in backyards and playgrounds on the west side. The agency wants to see if the soil holds any pesticide residues that might account for the leukemia. The test will cost $30,000 to $50,000.
Munson admits he was pressured--but he won't say by whom--not to sample the school because it had already paid for its own tests, which came out negative.
But just last week, Munson decided he'd include the school in his sampling anyway. "I can see their point," he says of the activists.
The results of the soil test should be made public at the end of this summer.
"I feel encouraged," says Swift. "All our hard work at the meetings paid off. Of course, someone will have to go with these guys to make sure they don't cheat."
When the tightlipped womenand the tightlipped bureaucrats face off, the air is so thick with hatred you can hardly inhale.
"They're just trying to protect that school," grumbles Swift. "The cover-up goes deep."
Until they decide what study to do, DHS doctors refuse to give the public any idea of what might have caused the leukemia.
"There are just gobs and gobs of pollution."
"We're not stonewalling," insists DHS director Ted Williams.
"Questions of panic and hysteria are very real--not among the public, but among public officials who don't like to deal with the public."
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