Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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"I had nothing to suggest otherwise," he says.

Steve Brittle, a Valley environmental activist with Don't Waste Arizona, has helped her find out more about TRW, the chemicals in use there and the government's regulatory actions.

He says he watched Bertleson's horses get sicker and sicker. "I saw the horses go from healthy to having to be put down," he says. "I don't cry easily, but that one was hard."

He applauds her idea to capture everything on videotape. "Just the images alone will tell the story," he says.

But Brittle says anyone driving around the area can see evidence of chemical damage. "There are whole areas where the desert vegetation has died and it looks like someone took a blow torch to it," he says.

Brittle attended some of the community meetings organized by Bertleson and her attorney after she decided to get legal help fighting TRW. The stories told by the residents and the similarity of the problems were amazing, he says.

He says no homes, schools or businesses should be allowed within 20 miles of the plant. And he is concerned for the dairies and the Queen Creek schools, some of which are about a mile from TRW.

James Murlless, superintendent of the Queen Creek Unified School District, did not return a call from New Times, but his secretary expressed surprise at the query about whether the plant has caused any health problems at the schools. "I don't believe it has," she says.

Indeed, the company is known within the district for donations of books and space camp trips for students.

TRW found itself in trouble with government regulators soon after it started operating in the Mesa area in 1989. It bought several existing plants and soon built another -- near Bertleson's house.

The Arizona office of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration began investigating some plants owned by TRW because of employee complaints. Two fires that year at plants in Mesa and Higley -- five employees were injured -- also sparked a number of separate inquiries.

Serious violations of safety laws were also noted at those plants (including improper training and lack of proper protective equipment for employees) and fines of $2,700 were levied. But those penalties were reduced to $1,040 after TRW blamed some hazards on the former operator and promised to do better. A 1990 U.S. General Accounting Office report on accidental fires in the air-bag industry notes the Mesa Fire Department applauded TRW's "exemplary" cooperation after the fires. And the report says OSHA decided to cut one of the fines because of TRW's "positive attitude and corrective efforts."

TRW, it seems, was the Eddie Haskell of the air-bag industry. While pledging the highest commitment to safety and compliance with regulations, time and time again, it failed to keep its promises.

Minutes from the March 15, 1990, planning and zoning meeting in which the company was given the green light to build its Germann Road plant show promises to maintain a safe, clean plant. A summary of a corporate official's comments says "the TRW philosophy was to not pollute. Waste products would be reclaimed except for the hazardous materials which would be removed from the site."

The rezoning from ranch and agricultural use to a designation allowing manufacturing of the air bags was approved unanimously. Minutes note that the company would employ up to 1,300 people at the site, and would use landscaping and berms to make the site and building "involving potentially explosive materials" visually pleasing to neighbors. The board notes reflect minimal mention about the possible environmental impact on the area, no reference to sodium azide and vague promises to comply with fire and building codes.

In 1991, the year the plant opened, the ADEQ found that TRW was illegally storing sodium azide and other hazardous materials and waste. In an August 1991 consent order, the company agreed to obtain the required permit and properly manage hazardous waste and storage at its Germann Road plant within 45 days.

Four years later, TRW had not obtained the proper permit. So the state Attorney General's Office took the company to court again, fining it $79,000. TRW again agreed to get the required permits, improve its safety program and do a better job of reporting its fires, explosions and releases of hazardous materials.

That November 1995 agreement came about a year after an explosion and fire at the TRW Higley plant killed one worker and injured six others. OSHA found TRW in violation of several safety and health standards, the Arizona Industrial Commission fined it $33,000, then increased the fine to $89,000 for what it considered willful violations.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin