Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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Her husband, an executive at a Tempe engineering firm, has vertigo and amnesia. Her daughter, who had lived with the Bertlesons when they first moved to the area, had a miscarriage and developed asthma problems she hadn't experienced since childhood. A grandchild suddenly developed depth perception difficulties that others in the family do not suffer from. Even with her new glasses, she cannot ride a bike.

Could these maladies be linked to toxic emissions from TRW?

The company, in a fact sheet distributed to neighbors in 1999, says absolutely not. Without naming Bertleson, TRW discounts the claims made by a "concerned citizen," asserting that investigations show "there is no evidence indicating TRW is adversely impacting any off-site areas."

The fact sheet says studies have proven "people and horses living near the . . . facility will not be affected by sodium azide." It says sodium azide doesn't cause cancer or birth defects in people or animals and maintains that an accidental fire, at worst, could temporarily irritate the eyes, nose and throat of a person or animal downwind.

"However, the combination of events necessary for even this irritation is extremely unlikely," the company declared.

Some of Bertleson's neighbors hope to find out who is right. They've filed a lawsuit asking that anyone living within five miles of the plant at Germann and Ellsworth roads be entitled to medical monitoring. The complaint, filed a year ago by the Phoenix office of the Hagens Berman & Mitchell law firm, hopes to make TRW pay for medical tests for every member of the "class," believed to number as high as 8,000.

They want TRW to pay for ongoing screening to determine whether exposure to sodium azide or other chemicals emitted from TRW is affecting their health now or in the future.

The complaint seeks punitive damages from the company and an injunction barring TRW from continuing to emit toxic or noxious substances into the air. A federal judge from Alaska has been assigned to the case, and first must determine whether the lawsuit should be treated as a class action. Arguments on that issue are set for this summer.

Bertleson's neighbors say in the lawsuit that they, too, have suffered from a variety of similar ailments and watched their animals get sick and die.

Their ills include respiratory problems, degenerative bones, headaches, dizziness and seizures. Some of their horses have had trouble walking; one died shortly after a toxic release from TRW. They claim other farm animals have had spontaneous abortions and have had trouble breeding or hatching. Their dogs and other animals have died.

Neighbors can't be sure their ailments are linked to whatever is being emitted from TRW, rather than other factors. But they say they, their animals and plants were healthy before the sudden onset of some of these problems. And they believe that the similar nature of their ailments, as well as the problems experienced by their animals, would indicate an environmental, rather than internal, cause.

And scientific research on sodium azide's effect on animals and plants supports their theory: neurological damage, respiratory problems, vision problems, a slow, cumulative poisoning and genetic mutation of plants have been linked to sodium azide.

Residents allege that TRW "grossly underestimates" emissions of sodium azide from the Mesa plant. The company reported 13,000 pounds released in 1997 and 7,500 pounds in 1998.

The lawsuit alleges TRW is engaging in an "ongoing and secretive scheme to hide the true nature and extent of the release of toxic substances" from the plant.

TRW refutes the claims made by Bertleson and her neighbors and says the company plans to vigorously defend the lawsuit. "This matter has been studied for years," Lancaster says. "Government authorities have reviewed those studies or participated in designing those studies. . . . And every study has shown that the claims articulated in the lawsuit are without merit."

If the class is certified, Bertleson and her husband would be included among the group that would be entitled to medical monitoring. And if it weren't for her behind-the-scenes efforts, the lawsuit might never have been filed.

Howard Shanker, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, says Bertleson is like a local version of Erin Brockovich, the real-life character portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film of the same name.

Brockovich, who helped prove that a major utility's contamination of a small town's water supply was causing medical problems, exhibited a relentless determination.

The 62-year-old Bertleson is equally dogged, calling public and corporate officials, filing public information requests and keeping her video camera with her at all times.

Bertleson first noticed something wrong with one of her horses in 1991 when LB, a "very lively, exuberant young stallion," seemed strangely exhausted after a romp in the pasture. He lay down and slept, then later rolled around and wouldn't eat. A veterinarian couldn't explain it, but Bertleson later found that there had been a fire at TRW three days earlier.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin