Maricopa County continued pumping cancer-causing toxins into the ground for four years after the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality warned it to stop. The county Board of Supervisors and top administrators were aware that an oil/water separator at a fuel-storage site discharged--probably illegally--pollutants into a dry well on the property, internal county documents and a former county official reveal.
Those contaminants may have contributed to a massive plume of fouled groundwater which now threatens future drinking-water supplies.
But Maricopa County probably won't ever be held accountable.
The county never told the state it was continuing to dump. Instead, it claims that the problem was solely caused years earlier by other operators at the site, which for decades was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad.
And ADEQ has bought it. The county was released from its liability for the White Mountain Fuel Storage site last year by ADEQ after it submitted a report which claimed that it wasn't responsible for any contamination--without mentioning the years of dumping.
That's nothing new for the county and ADEQ.
For years, ADEQ has allowed Maricopa County to stall, stonewall and haggle over cleaning up after itself in the West Van Buren area, a 35-square-mile patch of state-designated environmental problems that stretches from Seventh Avenue to 83rd Avenue.
At a county materials management facility in the same area, the county already has spent more than $200,000 of taxpayer money on legal bills and public relations costs to convince the state it's not responsible for the mess there. Meanwhile, Southern Pacific already has forked over nearly $300,000 to the county to help cover costs, none of which has gone toward actual cleanup.
At stake for the county is potentially millions of dollars in cleanup costs. The law requires polluters to pay their share of cleaning up contaminated sites.
For the county, the expensive question of responsibility involves who contributed to a giant plume of contaminated groundwater that is flowing under South Phoenix. Hazardous chemicals--such as solvents and petroleum products linked to cancer and other illnesses--have been detected above legal limits. The drinking water of the city of Tolleson is at risk because of the spills, and the contaminated groundwater is already used in agricultural canals. More important, the polluted underground water supply is expected to be needed as drinking water for the city of Phoenix in the future.
No one from the county or state will talk about the county's involvement in the West Van Buren area. ADEQ staffers have been instructed not to speak to the press. Pieces of ADEQ's files on the matter are missing. County staffers have locked down public records, saying the matter is "in negotiation." Both the county and state offer assurances that they're taking all the appropriate measures.
But those measures don't yet include dealing with the contamination. Even though the county often forces businesses and citizens to follow environmental rules and regulations, Maricopa County still hasn't started cleaning up after itself.
Last year, Maricopa County quit using the White Mountain Fuel Storage Facility. But contaminants linger under the site--and so do the questions about what the county did to contribute to the pollution.
In 1982, Maricopa County leased the property at 5146 West Monroe from Southern Pacific for use as a fuel storage facility. An oil/water separator on the site was used to dispose of contaminated water by pumping it into a dry well.
In 1989, ADEQ told the county to quit. "Some sort of preventative measures [should] be undertaken to avoid such an event (i.e., subsurface contamination from a dry well) in the future," ADEQ wrote the county, according to a chronology prepared by county staff.
Other companies that also stored fuel in the area disconnected their dry wells when asked by ADEQ, the chronology notes. But for four years after that warning from ADEQ, the county continued dumping contaminated water into the dry well.
Maricopa County's former environmental liabilities manager Roland Bergen told the county's Board of Supervisors of the problems at the site in an executive session on November 16, 1993. On March 23, 1994, Bergen wrote a memo about what had been going on at the site.
"We raised concerns about potential liability of the Board of Supervisors and management due to on-going disposal of BTEX (i.e. benzene, toluene, total xylenes) contaminated water from an on-site oil/water separator connected to a dry well at the facility since its construction in the early 1980s," Bergen wrote.
"Our research of the record indicates that on 22 March 1989 Maricopa County was advised by ADEQ to adopt 'some sort of preventative measures . . . to avoid' contamination of the groundwater from our oil/water separator."
But the county ignored ADEQ's request.
"Rather than act immediately on this information, Maricopa County continued to dispose of BTEX contaminated water in the on-site dry well until the mid part of November," Bergen wrote. "This appears to be a violation of ARS 13-1603 (Criminal littering or polluting)."
According to another county document, the oil/water separator was ordered disconnected in October 1993. But this order was ignored, too, and no follow-up was done for another month when the oil/water separator was finally disconnected from the well.
Bergen, when reached by New Times, didn't remember writing the memo but confirmed its contents.
"I don't remember the exact dates, but I know it wasn't disconnected when it should've been. But that was not me, you understand," he says. "It was not me that even got the memo in '89 . . . just so you know I'm not going out dumping hazardous waste down dry wells."
Bergen has since left county government to take a position with Intel. For the most part, he says, he's proud of the work he did while with Maricopa County. He tried to deal with problems as quickly and honestly as possible, he says.
"When I was there, we ran into a lot of things. And we cleaned them up, to the letter of the law. We found some real messes," Bergen says. "My approach was always comply with the letter and spirit of the law and in as comprehensive and as economical a manner as possible. And that's what I did."
Bergen took the same approach with the White Mountain facility, he says.
"There's a lot of problems with the county, and that was one of them," Bergen says. "I guess when we discovered it . . . in '93, we sounded the alarm bells, tried to get it fixed. And we got it fixed, as quickly as we could."
Maricopa County's current risk manager, Rocky Armfield, won't comment on the White Mountain facility, which was already out of the county's operations when he took over.
But ADEQ was never informed of the possible criminal violation, according to Richard Olm, the ADEQ project manager responsible for the area which includes White Mountain.
In 1996--more than a year after the county attorney, county administrator and Board of Supervisors were informed that the county had dumped contaminated water at the White Mountain facility--Maricopa County argued it shouldn't be responsible for cleanup since it had never polluted the groundwater.
"Throughout 1995, concentrations of BTEX . . . TCE . . . PCE . . . and . . . DCE have been detected in groundwater samples collected from the on-site wells," according to a report prepared for the county by James Clarke, a geologist with Brown and Caldwell, a consulting firm hired by the county.
Clarke concluded that the chemical contamination was not the county's fault. And in a letter sent to ADEQ on the county's behalf, Clarke said Maricopa County would not participate in cleanup efforts.
Clarke's letter and report never disclosed Maricopa County's four years of dumping on the site. The letter ends by asking ADEQ not to release the letter publicly. Clarke declined to comment for this story.
The letter and report, however, convinced ADEQ to release the county from any liability at the White Mountain facility.
Now, ADEQ officials say they would need to review the county's internal memos before deciding whether to investigate illegal dumping activities.
"I would need to read the memo and understand how it relates back to the site. That's my comment now," Olm, the ADEQ project manager, says.
But White Mountain isn't the only place where the county has found it convenient to ignore environmental problems in the West Van Buren area.
The other is the Maricopa County Materials Management Warehouse at 301 West Lincoln in South Phoenix, a storage/utility site that the county purchased from Southern Pacific in 1974. The site formerly housed a solvent-recycling facility, which used many hazardous chemicals in its processes.
Maricopa County was supposed to monitor the levels of toxins in the groundwater at its materials management warehouse. A series of wells were drilled, at taxpayer expense, for that purpose.
For a year, Maricopa County let the wells gather dust.
"The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is concerned about the lack of progress of remedial activities at the Maricopa Materials Management Center," ADEQ's Olm wrote on February 9, 1994. Olm notes that the state asked Maricopa County to start monitoring the groundwater wells in June 1993.
"ADEQ did not receive a response to this request but believe the county is not monitoring groundwater elevations or collecting groundwater samples," Olm wrote.
The county's response: You're right, but we've been busy.
"As indicated in your letter dated 9 February 1994," a county staffer replied, "Maricopa County is not currently collecting groundwater samples . . . nor is it monitoring groundwater levels at that site. Despite massive financial and management burdens, Maricopa County . . . [is] planning to issue RFP's for these activities in May, interview consultants in June and award contracts in July 9 (our new budget year)."
The county's responsibility for the materials management warehouse is still under negotiation with ADEQ.
Maricopa County's defense against ADEQ's demands that it pay for the contamination from the site is well-known to any kindergartner: It's someone else's fault.
In this case, the county is pointing its finger at Southern Pacific, the original owner of both properties. The contamination at Materials Management, the county has argued in letters to ADEQ, predates Maricopa County's ownership of the property, or comes from other sources, and the county shouldn't be held responsible for it.
But if it really is Southern Pacific's fault, then the county has already collected from it to the tune of $282,376.
In 1994, a deputy county attorney suggested pulling Southern Pacific into the negotiations with ADEQ for the West Van Buren area.
"[E]very effort should be made to draw as many 'potentially responsible parties' into the [West Van Buren Group] as possible," the attorney said in a memo. "Because the Southern Pacific Company owned the materials warehouse property . . . the railroad clearly bears a considerable share of the responsibility for any contamination . . ."
Maricopa County was successful. After negotiations, the railroad plunked down more than a quarter of a million dollars in 1996 to assist with the costs of dealing with the site. None of the railroad's money has gone to actual cleanup costs, and ADEQ is still negotiating, largely because Maricopa County insists the railroad is responsible.
The county won't say much about the delays. Rocky Armfield, the county's risk manager, declines to answer most questions about the county's sites in the West Van Buren area because the matter is still in discussion with ADEQ. He will say, however, that fixing the blame for an environmental hazard generally takes a lot longer than fixing the problem.
"If you look at the history of environmental liabilities, and you look at the length of investigation, you realize it's generally a lot longer process than the actual remediation," Armfield says.
The state's environmental watchdog defends the county, however; Maricopa County is no worse than anyone else, ADEQ says.
"There's sites that we have that nobody's doing anything on, and contamination was discovered before [Maricopa County]," says Olm. "Would it be nice if things happened quicker? I would say yes. But the process, length of time with the county is not particularly different than other sites."
Still, other polluters in the area aren't using taxpayer dollars to pay the legal bills to drag out the process. The county has already spent $207,203 on legal fees and public relations costs alone for the Materials Management site. Another $654,195 has paid for testing to confirm and monitor the contamination.
Just three weeks ago, the county finally approved $92,000 to remove vapors from the soil at the Materials Management warehouse. (The vapors are not considered to be a health threat until they migrate into the air or water, according to consultants' reports done on the site.)
But there's no indication from Maricopa County or ADEQ when chemicals will be removed from the groundwater--if ever.
Treated reservoir water now meets the city's needs, but groundwater is supposed to be considered a source of drinking water--at least in the eyes of the law. The groundwater under Phoenix and the surrounding area is reserved for future generations, who are expected to drink it.
Future generations had better budget for Evian.
For years, numerous businesses and manufacturers contributed to hundreds of different spills and dumps of chemicals, many of which trickled their way down to the water trapped below layers of sediment and rock. The result is that the groundwater in this area is contaminated with numerous chemicals, many that are harmful.
In 1986, the Arizona Legislature passed laws which regulated the testing and cleanup of the state's groundwater. Those laws also created the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. One of the agency's missions was to ensure that the chemistry experiment under the ground stopped, and got cleaned up.
Over the past 10 years, regulators have tried, with varying zeal and success, to carry out their mandate. But at least some of the worst spills--such as Motorola's decades-long history of leaks and dumping--are now on the way to being cleaned up.
The City of Phoenix, another polluter in the West Van Buren area, has entered into a consent decree which has settled its liability. The American Linen Supply Company, after going through its own haggling period with ADEQ, has entered into a consent decree and paid $2 million to the state.
Those sites as well as both county properties are part of the West Van Buren Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund (WQARF, pronounced "wharf") area. WQARF areas, sometimes known as state Superfund sites, are supposed to eliminate the pollution within their boundaries.
The West Van Buren WQARF area's responsibility is the West Van Buren plume, a contaminated, underground tide approximately one and a half miles wide that stretches from Seventh Avenue to about 83rd Avenue.
The plume contains a stew of toxins: trichloroethylene, or TCE, chromium, dichloroethane, or DCE, and benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, known collectively as BTEX.
These chemicals have been linked with cancer and other adverse health effects.
Benzene is known to cause leukemia and is believed to cause tumors. Toluene, another component of BTEX, can damage the central nervous system and bone marrow. Xylenes might also damage bone marrow and present a threat to unborn babies. Most people come into contact with BTEX while fueling up their cars--but it's also in Phoenix's groundwater.
TCE is classified as a carcinogen, and chronic exposure may cause damage to internal organs. Chromium is also considered a cancer-causing agent, even at the minimum limit set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The plume containing these contaminants threatens the drinking water of the city of Tolleson, which still relies on groundwater wells for its municipal supply. The polluted groundwater is also being released into the air and into irrigation canals used to water crops.
That could be a more immediate concern, according to Karen Florini, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. "Whatever you've got in [the water] is going to [disperse in the air]," she says. "It just depends on the levels."
Benzene, for example, makes an easy passage from water to the air to the bloodstream, one CDC study shows. The benzene-tainted water being poured into the canals could be releasing the chemical into the air, Florini says.
"You've got a potentially significant exposure to benzenes there," she says.
Maricopa County has done no testing to determine the health effects of exposure to the groundwater being poured into the canals. And no testing is being done of the water in the irrigation canals, according to the Roosevelt Irrigation District.
Despite the contamination, no cleanup of the groundwater in the West Van Buren area is under way or planned for any set date.
ADEQ considers remediation "infeasible because unmanageably large volumes of groundwater would require treatment and disposal," according to the ADEQ project summary.
Translation: So much groundwater has been fouled, we can't afford to clean it all.
But the possible health hazards of the plume seem to concern the county less than the legal battle to get out of paying for them.
Even an internal county document draws that conclusion. In a memo detailing the chronology of the county's role in the West Van Buren area, a staffer says that the county got bogged down in bickering, while the more important issue--removing a potential health hazard from the public's water--was ignored.
". . . [I]t appears that the Materials Management Department was unprepared to respond to either the environmental or human health issues in the West Van Buren WQARF (both at the tank farm and materials warehouse)," the staffer wrote. "Additionally, it appears that the County Attorney's Office focused almost exclusively upon legal issues . . . no department initiated the remedial investigation, risk assessment, and feasibility studies that are common to effectively define and/or limit the scope of exposures in this arena."
However, the county will "comprehensively" address health issues in the future, the memo promises.
The memo was written in 1993.
A recent letter to New Times from county administrator David Smith talks up the county's commitment to dealing with its environmental problems.
"The county is thoroughly committed to addressing its environmental responsibilities in order to protect public health, safety and welfare, while at the same time acting as a prudent steward of public monies," Smith wrote.
But when it comes to one of those responsibilities, ADEQ and Maricopa County can't think of anything to say. Both are reluctant at best to discuss the problems in the West Van Buren area. ADEQ's Olm would only answer a few questions before he told New Times he'd been instructed not to respond to any inquiries. "Now I'm starting to wonder if I'm defying . . . DEQ administration by continuing this conversation," he says.
The county's risk manager says he can't comment as long as the matter is in negotiation. The spokesman for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and administration, Scott Celley, referred questions back to the risk manager.
Neither ADEQ nor Maricopa County will talk about the potential violation of law the county committed by dumping the hazardous waste at White Mountain.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The White Mountain site is considered a closed case. ADEQ has released Maricopa County from the group of responsible parties. Those who are left are now proposing "natural attenuation" as a solution--basically, letting the tainted groundwater flow away. ADEQ is considering the proposal.
Roland Bergen, the former liabilities manager, says that the county did dig up the dry well and dispose of the contaminated soil at White Mountain, though there is no record of this at ADEQ. Bergen can't explain why the county would not inform others about problems like the one he discovered at White Mountain.
The EDF's Karen Florini would offer a comment on the dumping, however.
"Who was stupid enough to do this?" she asks. "Unless this dry well it's been going down has a permit to receive hazardous waste, that disposal is illegal. And somebody's potentially in a lot of trouble.