Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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The number of fires, explosions and chemical releases from TRW's Valley facilities is difficult to calculate. The lawsuit filed by Bertleson's neighbors alleges there have been hundreds of such incidents. Reporting requirements vary from agency to agency, and the company has its own emergency response team and automatic fire system, meaning it hasn't always called the local fire department for help. And since it believes that sodium azide is converted to harmless chemicals in fires or explosions, it doesn't always report incidents it believes have not resulted in sodium azide releases.

A comparison of various records, however, shows that there have clearly been a large number of possibly hazardous incidents at TRW.

Maricopa County Pollution Control reports show that from 1994 through 1996, the company had 76 "occurrences," 52 of them fires. Mesa Fire Department reports show 168 fire calls and 67 medical calls to the plant in 1995 and 1996. And the lawsuit filed by the neighbors recounts 22 fires and spills in 1997, three toxic releases and three fires in 1998 and six fire calls in 1999.

In September 1995, the Mesa fire chief, noting a "persistent, chronic and on-going pattern of frequent and severe explosions" at that site, said TRW was posing an "imminent threat to both life and property." A cease and desist order shut down the plant.

But two days later, the order was lifted. TRW agreed to a 15-point safety plan that called for safety upgrades, improvements in plant design, further studies of the plant and its operations and better reporting and cooperation with Mesa and other agencies.

In November of that year, about the same time TRW was settling with the state over the Germann Road problems, the company pleaded no contest to a single count of violating hazardous waste management laws to avoid a manslaughter charge stemming from the fatal fire in 1994 at the Higley plant. An additional $1.75 million in fines and penalties levied was the largest corporate criminal fine in state history.

News reports of the court proceeding at which the agreement was lodged said a TRW lawyer wrote a check on the spot to cover the fines.

A year later, Joy West, a 36-year-old inflator operator at the TRW plant, was doing her $14.74-an-hour job, loading poker-chip-size discs of sodium azide into a tube. A sudden explosion and flash fire slammed her against the wall, ignited the discs in her hand, melted the protective gloves she was wearing, and left her temporarily blinded and tangled in her air hose.

She says the gloves she was wearing were not fireproof and her wrists were protected by duct tape which melted into her skin.

"I could feel the flames," she remembers. "My face hurt. I looked at my hands and they were like melted wax."

Three other employees were less seriously burned in the blast. Two were moaning and calling out near her and another had been blown out of the room.

"Nobody was looking for us," West says. "Everybody was running for their lives."

After a second explosion, a deluge water system designed to extinguish such fires was activated and the young worker who had landed outside the room came back in to drag her out.

But West says she lay outside for three hours before a helicopter arrived to take her to Desert Samaritan Hospital. Although government safety sheets on sodium azide recommend using water to get the chemical off an injured person as soon as possible, she says this didn't happen until she arrived at the hospital.

From there she was transported to the burn unit at Maricopa Medical Center, where plastic surgeons took skin from her wrist to re-form some of her fingers.

After an investigation into the blast, OSHA charged TRW with a minor violation that included no fines. But West believes that, despite repeated pronouncements of its dedication to safety for its employees and others, the company cut corners dangerously to save money.

TRW did not respond to questions about West's allegations.

She charges that the company didn't invest in fireproof coverings for its employees, that a robotic operation in the risky area where she worked was replaced by humans to speed up production. She says a daily shutdown for a washing of the facility was not adhered to, a slipshod practice which increased the risk of an accident because sodium azide is so highly combustible that the tiniest spark or friction can ignite residue or grain amounts.

While no records were available to substantiate whether West was left unattended for hours, Mesa Fire Department records reveal several other instances in which emergency personnel were kept at the guard shack at the plant and denied entry until a TRW official could accompany them.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin