Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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Soon, she says, more strange things began happening to her horses, a collection of Arabians that came from impressive stock, in some cases internationally known and even royal lineage. Six horses began to founder, showing problems walking or even standing. Their hooves would buckle under, and they would avoid putting any weight on them. Several of the horses began swelling up and the mares began to have reproductive problems. The stallions would be too tired to breed and several horses refused to eat or lost weight.

"You don't know what to think," says Bertleson. They consulted vet after vet and spent thousands of dollars for new types of horseshoes, alternative medical treatments including magnetic therapy and massages, and special diets.

In 1993, members of the Bertleson family and their visitors began to have headaches and breathing problems. Sunday dinners for family and friends were called off after guests began to worry about their health.

A complicated, expensive plan to export LB's frozen semen to Bertleson's native Latvia had to be canceled. She'd wanted LB to be a "foundation stallion" for the country and help start a new line of Arabians there.

Ivanhoe Road, where the Bertlesons live, is in an unincorporated part of Maricopa County adjacent to Mesa and Queen Creek. The homes are a good distance from each other and the neighbors don't bump into each other in their driveways.

And so it was years before Bertleson mentioned some of her animals' problems to neighbor Bonnie Kane. She found Kane had been having similar problems: Kane's rabbits were inexplicably dying, hogs had gone blind, a turkey's legs had literally curled up over time and hens were suddenly sterile.

Bertleson began to believe that the problems in the area were related to the strange clouds seen floating over the neighborhood.

In 1995, she began taking videos to document what she was seeing. "I was afraid no one would believe me," she says.

Meanwhile, she began her search for information about what sorts of materials were being used by the company and what was being emitted.

And when the plant began to experience repeated explosions and fires, she sought records of those incidents, too.

Working without the benefit of the Internet, Bertleson amassed four filing cabinet drawers full of information. She determined that many agencies were interested in "collecting paperwork" but not sharing information. So she would disperse reports among city, county, state and federal agencies, pointing out inconsistencies between them.

After a November 3, 1997, fire, for example, TRW reported to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that 1,500 pounds of sodium azide had been burned, sending "two large plumes" in a northeast direction. But a December 5 letter to the state Division of Emergency Management reported that only 65 pounds of the chemical were consumed in the fire which "resulted in no affect [sic] to persons off site."

In addition to faxing and mailing copies of reports to various agencies, Bertleson also sent bureaucrats copies of her videos.

Meanwhile, she started closing her windows at night, kept a diary of her horses' health and continued videotaping.

So far, she and her husband have had to put five Arabians and six dogs down. They've lost a premature foal after sleeping in the barn feeding it with a baby bottle for two nights. Twenty-seven chickens and 30 trees have died.

One day in January, a week before the scheduled euthanasia of Crystal, a mare who stood still in her stall, and Conquest, a stallion who was reduced to lying on his side, Bertleson mourned for them and the others.

"I've cried so many tears," she says. "It's the emotional impact that is so horrible. The things you love, you have to kill."

Michael Robinson, a Tucson veterinarian consulted in 1997 in an effort to help the crippled horses, says when he first saw them, he advised they all be put down.

"When I got there, none of them could walk," he says. "They were in horrible shape."

But the Bertlesons wanted desperately to save them, so Robinson cut the tendons on three of them, a bloody operation captured on tape, recommended special shoes and put them on a detoxifying diet.

Four of them are doing okay now, Bertleson says, but they are still too weak to be ridden.

Robinson says he has no expertise in sodium azide or its effect on horses, but he says Bunny Bertleson's suspicions that the problems were related to the chemical seemed logical to him.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin