Arizona's Worst Neighbor

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Asked what would be an effective way to treat such a spill, Betterton is stumped. "I can't conceive of a neat, slick way of handling a sodium azide spill," he says. "If it catches fire, it would be hard to handle."

Another reason all Valley residents should be worried about the toxic effects of sodium azide -- a water-soluble chemical -- is because ADEQ has detected a plume containing the chemical beneath the Germann Road TRW plant, traveling downward toward the groundwater supply.

Again, Betterton says, there has not been enough research on the chemical to know how long it might take to reach drinking-water supplies or whether it will convert to a harmless chemical by the time it gets there.

For the same reason, he says, TRW cannot say with certainty that the hazardous waste illegally disposed at the Butterfield landfill resulted in no threat to the environment.

In her pursuit of information about TRW and sodium azide, Bunny Bertleson has had her deep love for the United States tested.

A naturalized citizen, she made a dramatic escape from Latvia during World War II. The tiny country was a battleground between Soviet and German powers and her family was caught in the middle of it.

In a children's book she co-authored 20 years ago with a Scottsdale writer, Bertleson told what it was like to live under such conditions, in fear of the KGB, then the Nazis, while trying to save some of her cultural identity.

While she was only 3 years old when she, her sister, two brothers and parents fled the country, she remembers certain images vividly and was able to reconstruct the tale with the help of other family members.

Bertleson says her older siblings tried to protect her from the most horrible scenes, literally covering her face. But the pictures in her mind -- verified later by her sister and brothers -- are horrifying. Her uncle and aunt hid her family in the forest to protect them from the KGB. Bertleson remembers using branches as covers, crying a lot, being hushed. For their role in helping her family hide, her uncle was shot in the head and her aunt disappeared. She remembers the sight of her godfather, found in a ditch, slashed brutally after being tortured, then being shot to relieve his suffering.

She remembers the panic, the explosions, the acrid smells of Liepaja, a city under attack, while her family scrambled onto a boat to Poland. Her final memories of Latvia include watching corpses float by while her terrified family huddled together on the boat in 1944.

Her family lived in detention centers, then came to the United States five years later after a church in Minnesota sponsored them.

Over the years, she has worked to lose most of her accent, forgotten most of the Russian and German she used to know, and embraced the freedoms and opportunities in America.

But her respect for this country has been shaken during her campaign against TRW, which brought her into contact with Arizona bureaucrats.

She says some agencies were very cooperative. Others stonewalled her. She recounts visiting the Arizona Industrial Commission and sorting through thousands of pages of blank or nearly blank material deemed confidential by TRW. She tells how she finally got an agency to agree with her that the Material and Safety Data Sheet, which must be posted at workplaces to inform employees about hazardous materials, cannot be confidential.

She talks of meetings with Mesa officials -- one of whom went to work for TRW -- in which she felt they were trying to humiliate her, intimidate her or find out how much she knew. Bertleson says it wasn't right that she was referring city officials to studies on sodium azide.

"All that should have been done before the plant was allowed to open," she says.

Documents and letters detail her early request to the City of Mesa for public records about TRW, and how an exorbitant fee schedule meant she would have to shell out up to $2,500 for copies.

She initially agreed to pay the costs. But when she mentioned the amount -- including a fee of $5 per page for some pages and $1 per minute for research -- to Steve Brittle, he convinced her to protest. She contacted the Center for Law in the Public Interest attorney Tim Hogan, who wrote a letter to Mesa officials.

The city refunded Bertleson's initial check and amended its rates to a 20-cents-per-page copying fee.

In January, federal and state authorities announced the consent agreement regarding TRW's hazardous dumping.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin