Cleaning Up Is Hard To Do

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WHY HAS THE STATE Superfund program accomplished so little in all this time?

Ferland and other worried experts believe the agency erred fundamentally in throwing such a large lasso around the urban pollution sites. The largest sites encompass multiple pools of poisoned groundwater and hundreds of potential contamination sources. The west central Phoenix site, for instance, which includes most of Maryvale, covers not one but four distinct pockets of contaminated groundwater.

"No wonder the contractors are swamped--they've got hundreds of potential sources of contamination to examine in an area that big," Ferland says. "The agency needs to redefine the parameters at some of its sites. In Maryvale, for instance, three of the four [contaminant] plumes are very localized, suggesting they probably are three one-source sites."

DEQ also failed to give its contractors a clear set of directions for handling these huge sites, with predictably chaotic results. For example, the west central Phoenix study has focused on businesses near the most contaminated wells, while just one mile to the south another contractor is wading methodically through all 850 businesses located within the boundaries of the West Van Buren study area.

Even touchy labels like "high priority," used to describe suspected polluters recommended for intensive investigation, are applied inconsistently and sometimes misleadingly. More than 100 businesses in the West Van Buren study area, which covers thirty to forty square miles, have been categorized in preliminary reports as high-priority sites warranting further investigation. But the same report elsewhere characterizes this group as having low potential as sources of significant pollution, and recommends the agency focus on businesses in the "higher" and "highest" priority categories.

"These reports are making the Valley's financial institutions very nervous," Kimball says. "A banker sees a business labeled a high-priority suspected polluter in a state Superfund site, and it becomes very difficult for the business to obtain a loan or finance a sale."

"If you read the fine print, `high priority' actually means `low priority,' but that's certainly not the impression left with the reading public," he adds.

The only way to get a handle on the complex pollution problems in urban areas, critics say, is to concentrate on the most contaminated wells first and work outward in the search for pollution sources. They are also urging the agency not to release lists of suspected polluters, no matter how careful the language, until DEQ contractors have solid evidence linking the facilities with pollution discharges.

Weiss says the agency is re-evaluating its administration of the state Superfund, based on the criticism it has received. But DEQ thinks it also needs additional authority from the Arizona State Legislature to subpoena private records and to order companies to conduct tests in connection with state Superfund investigations. Collecting water and soil samples at facilities suspected of causing pollution is the next step in the investigation.

WORD THAT DEQ was seeking additional power spurred immediate action by industry lawyers to cut off political support for the DEQ measure. Upon learning in January of DEQ's legislative plans, Kimball and other members of the state chamber of commerce's environmental committee assembled a group of state legislators and proceeded to wow them with horror stories about DEQ's supposed rampant abuse of authority.

State Representative Bill Mundell, who was present at the meeting, says he thinks the chamber's concerns are "blown out of proportion." But, he acknowledges, some of the freshman legislators in attendance were impressed.

Vieregg contends the chamber's concerns have been somewhat mollified by Randall Wood, the new DEQ director, and says industries may not oppose the measure. "It is possible people won't oppose it because it can be advantageous to have the government able to divide responsibility between parties at a Superfund site," Vieregg says.

Observers with public constituencies, however, worry about the toxic effects of piling foul-ups in the state Superfund on top of the agency's history of well- publicized bungling in other areas. "We see the program as potentially vulnerable because it's always been hard in this state to get support for regulatory programs," says Susan Keith with the City of Phoenix. "And DEQ has always had a credibility problem, anyway.

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Kathleen Stanton