Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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Bertleson believes sodium azide, the deadly chemical used to inflate the air bags, and hydrazoic acid, a lethal gas formed when the chemical mixes with water, are among the most dangerous substances that have escaped in emissions, fires and explosions at the plant.

She and her neighbors have been told time and time again by TRW that the emissions from the plant are not harmful, that the deadly toxins undergo chemical changes that render them virtually harmless.

But Bertleson and her neighbors have a hard time believing TRW, a company with a miserable record of repeatedly violating workplace and environmental laws. A firm whose lax safety monitoring has resulted in the death of one worker and serious injuries to several more, TRW's Arizona operation has a history of making promises to regulatory agencies, then breaking them.

It's difficult to get an accurate count of fires, explosions and accidental chemical releases at TRW. State, federal and local agencies have different reporting requirements and keep track of reports differently.

Clearly, there have been dozens of fires, explosions, toxic releases and emergency medical calls in the past 10 years, a review of various agencies' records reveals.

Six years ago, TRW received a record fine from the Arizona Industrial Commission, then settled a civil and criminal case arising out of a deadly explosion by agreeing to pay more than $1.7 million, the largest corporate criminal consent judgment in Arizona history.

There's more.

A pending plea agreement and consent judgment would brand the company one of America's worst environmental offenders.

The consent agreement hammered out by state and federal authorities calls for the company to pay more than $23 million in civil and criminal fines and penalties for improperly disposing of millions of gallons of sodium-azide-laced waste in three landfills (including the Butterfield facility south of Phoenix and two others in other states). Prosecutors say it is the largest such settlement of its type in Arizona history. And it is believed to be the biggest ever in the nation.

TRW -- one of the top employers in Mesa and among the largest in the Valley -- has apologized for its actions in that case and has blamed years of illegal hazardous waste dumping on a few employees who have since been fired. In January, when the proposed settlement was announced, DeWayne Pinkstaff, head of the division that makes air bags, noted that the company has cooperated with investigators since the illegal dumping was discovered and assured people that there was no harm done.

"Fortunately, our errors have not resulted in harm to the environment and there is no threat to the health of workers or residents," he said in a company press release.

Diane Lancaster, TRW's communication manager, says the wastewater settlement recognizes the strides the firm has made over the years after "continuous improvement efforts."

Bunny Bertleson says she was not at all encouraged by the recent news of the big settlement, touted by authorities as an example of how polluting companies will be held accountable for their actions.

"They should have been put in jail," she says.

The agreement -- set to be finalized this summer -- calls for TRW to admit to 15 state and federal felonies, pay fines and penalties, spend millions cleaning up contaminated sites and pay for a new emergency notification system for Maricopa County. (One of the neighbors' complaints is that they have never been given any official notice or asked to evacuate in a decade of fires and accidental releases.)

Edward Truman, head of the Arizona Attorney General's Office environmental law enforcement section, says if the company fails to live up to its agreements this time, it could face further penalties or be hauled back into court on charges of violating probation. And, he adds, there is still the possibility that the individuals involved in the illegal dumping could face criminal charges themselves.

Bertleson believes a monetary penalty-- even a record one -- means little to a company like TRW.

"I think that industry should not get by with just paying a fine," she says. "Each year TRW puts away millions of dollars for any kind of litigation."

In fact, according to the company's annual report, TRW set aside $35 million last year for litigation costs.

"It doesn't impact them at all. It's a joke."

Bunny Bertleson suffers from recurring breathing problems, a kind of voice-hoarsening bronchitis that comes and goes. She has lost her sense of smell and in recent years has started to transpose numbers.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin