Kathleen, a reporter and co-worker I count as a friend, had been cleaning out her office. She was leaving Phoenix, moving on to a university job in a different town.
I knew Kathleen had always meant to do an investigative piece on illnesses among high-tech workers. She never really had the time to develop the project, though, because she had several beats.
The blue three-ring binder she handed to me that day had been part of her research. It belonged to a former Motorola worker.
Kathleen Stanton knew that if she gave me any of her material for uncompleted projects, I'd roll my eyes and sigh and throw the binder in some corner and then pitch it in the trash after she was gone.
Which is probably why she said: "This is important, don't throw it away."
Okay, okay, Kathleen.
Inside the notebook, which belonged to a woman named Dolores Springer, were the names of people who had worked for the company, and had since fallen sick.
Mostly out of blind duty to Kathleen, I paid Dolores Springer a visit in January 1992. Dolores, a young mother, is crippled with an autoimmune disorder.
Dolores struck me as a sincere, honest person who simply wondered if her tenure on Motorola's assembly lines had caused her disease.
I didn't know the answer then, and I still don't know today.
But I was touched enough by her story to take a look at environmental records relating to the Motorola Superfund sites in Phoenix and Scottsdale.
There were thousands of pages of public documents--ten years' worth. It was remarkable to me that there had been so little news coverage of massive TCE contamination in two separate aquifers in the Valley.
After just a few hours, it was evident that this newspaper needed to examine how city, state and federal regulators had dealt with severe and extensive groundwater contamination they themselves had linked to Motorola, the state's largest employer.
I didn't want to write the story Kathleen Stanton had in mind when she gave me the notebook.
Nor was I out to write a breaking news expos about events that happened ten years ago.
I chose instead to write an explanatory piece that looked at political, medical and economic aspects of groundwater pollution in a desert city--areas that had inexplicably not been probed before.
What ended up happening was that the reporting for the first story organically led us to ask more questions. Before we knew it, we had sketched out a series that involved a year of my life.
We uncovered new "risk-based" federal Superfund policy that could be disastrous for Arizona. We discovered that Motorola bills the Department of Defense for some of its Superfund cleanup costs. We learned that current technology may not purge aquifers of TCE for centuries, despite state and federal regulators' assurances that "cleanups" are progressing well.
We reported that the federal government itself had associated TCE with various health problems--leukemia, disorders of the central nervous system and kidneys--and that the University of Arizona had linked TCE to heart defects in newborn babies. We discovered that in the Valley, there was a sharp increase in pediatric heart defects.
Despite the problems with TCE, there have been few health studies of the area. And we interviewed nationally known experts who concluded that federal health assessments and state statistical studies of the Superfund sites were cursory and incomplete.
We interviewed dozens of people with diseases that have been associated with TCE who still wonder if their illnesses had been caused by exposure to the chemical more than a decade ago, before contaminated drinking-water wells were shut off. The government officials could not tell us how long people consumed contaminated water. They did not know.
I learned that the sadness and frustration I sensed that first day when I interviewed Dolores Springer, the young mother who gave Kathleen Stanton the notebook, were not unusual among the ill residents of the Superfund sites.
You do not see many articles in the press about groundwater, contaminated or otherwise. Reporters worry that the stories will be tedious, consumed with parts-per-billion paragraphs. Editors worry that no one will read the copy.
But these stories captured the attention of U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini, as well as U.S. representative-elect Sam Coppersmith and staffers at the office of U.S. representative-elect Karan English.
Senator DeConcini supports more health studies and wants several points in our story brought up during upcoming Superfund reauthorization hearings.
Sam Coppersmith stands behind researching alternative technology for groundwater cleanup. It's a good way to put people to work, as well as help the environment, he tells me. "We lead the world in environmental technology. There's no reason to throw in the towel now. Groundwater contamination is a problem internationally as well. We should develop a technology that the world will want to buy. There's no magic wand, of course, but clearly this should be a priority.