Creatures Who Won't Investigate The Black Lagoon

Distressed that her baby was born minus an ear and with a disfigured skull, a mother went to court in 1982. She sued her former employer, Research Chemicals, claiming the company caused the birth defects by exposing her to dangerous workplace chemicals while she was pregnant.

For 24 years, the Research Chemicals plant near 83rd Avenue and Van Buren has isolated exotic mineral elements with strange names like yttrium and samarium and europium and forged them into compounds for aerospace, lighting-fixture, X-ray and laser industries.

The plant's owners refused in Maricopa County Superior Court to take any blame for the baby's birth defects, and no link between Research Chemicals' operations and health problems has ever been proved.

But Research Chemicals wasn't eager to take the case in front of a jury, either. It paid the woman an undisclosed sum when the case was settled out of court four years later.

To this day the woman remembers the stink of a big pit out back where the company discharged acidic wastewater into a shallow pond covered with brownish-yellow scum.

She once testified that the fumes from the chemicals traveled everywhere, even to the office where she worked.

The former secretary claimed the company was so sloppy with chemicals that, when she was delivering telephone messages, she had to step around "little pools" of acid that collected on the plant grounds.

Employees weren't the only ones upset by the wastewater pond. For eleven years, state and Maricopa County officials have suspected that the reeking crater on the company's back lot might be seeping chemicals into the groundwater.

There are about 700 sites statewide that, like Research Chemicals, continue discharging chemicals into the earth because they have yet to be thoroughly investigated by the state.

Research Chemicals, which was sold by its original owner, Nucor, to a French chemical company called Rhone-Poulenc in 1988, has repeatedly denied that it has ever exposed employees or the environment to unhealthy industrial wastes. The company has paid for numerous environmental tests and they all prove the industrial wastewater is perfectly safe, says Randall Ice, the company's new plant manager. MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 But state and county officials have never conducted a thorough investigation to see if the chemicals in the pit were sinking into the groundwater below.

Ice is a bit touchy about the odoriferous hole out back and wouldn't allow a photographer onto company property to photograph it. And he doesn't acknowledge the irony that after eleven years of suspicion by state officials that the pit is a potential pollution problem, it is the company, and not the state, that now has said it will deep-six the pit.

BACK IN 1966, Research Chemicals set up shop in a little village of sheds and dull rectangular buildings on four acres in the middle of a west-side farming area near Tolleson. Almost immediately, the company dug a 1,600-square-foot hole that was about four to six feet deep, and ran a pipe from the plant to the pit.

The place was so isolated, no one cared much at the time that about 40,000 gallons of glop was spewed into the pit each month. The concept of such a lagoon is as old as the Industrial Revolution: You just dump the wastewater in a pit so that the chemicals evaporate into the air or slump into the soil.

For 24 years the plant's pond has held wastewater from chemical processing of the minerals, floor-drain water from the laboratories and acids that had spilled out of the large tanks that squatted on the premises. The smelly liquid splashed from a large pipe onto solid junk that employees had thrown into the pit a long time ago--like slag from ore processing and chunks of resin.

Shortly after Research Chemicals set up shop, a water well was drilled just about 500 feet downstream from the pit for "industrial purposes" by the company itself, says current plant manager Ice. That well was eventually purchased from a private water company by the City of Phoenix to be used as part of its municipal water supply. Luckily, it never hooked up to city lines.

Records at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) show that ever since 1966, when it first opened its little plant, Research Chemicals has poured hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater into the unlined lagoon, insisting the gunk posed no threat to the groundwater less than a hundred feet below. Or to the nearby city well only 500 feet away that sucked Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 The company refused to cement its pond and hired an engineer to prove the wastewater was safe. The engineer used Research Chemicals' own lab for his environmental testing, records show. And he concluded the wastewater in the pit was not a hazard because it evaporated and didn't sink into the ground.

The engineer did admit the wastewater was highly acidic, however. Such highly acidic water often is considered a health and environmental hazard.

In 1980, Lemmon and several technicians from an outside lab that worked for the EPA came to the same conclusion. The wastewater was extremely acidic. However, the EPA did not order Research Chemicals to clean up the wastewater, says Lemmon, because it was assumed that state officials would do follow-up investigations.

"The lagoon is unfenced," the EPA's report said. "At the time of inspection, the lagoon was half covered with liquid .|.|.wastewater from the six-inch pipe was channeling through about two inches of a reddish-orange sludge believed to be mainly iron oxides. Furnace slag, brick and broken ceramic material have also been dumped into the lagoon. Slag heaps were located on the southeast corner."
"Mr. Cunningham [then the plant manager] claims what is going into the lagoon is of better quality than the well water." But Lemmon wasn't so sure. If the wastewater was so good, then why did the city well nearby have increasing levels of iron, nitrates and particles of churned up dirt that scientists call "total dissolved solids"? The churned-up dirt is common in some groundwater on the west side, but it also increases when acid is discharged into groundwater, Lemmon says.

The city was alarmed about its nearby well in 1980. In one year, nitrates had increased by about 1300 percent; dissolved solids shot up about 100 percent; iron multiplied by 1000 percent.

At that point, a city water official trooped door to door in the area, warning the companies serviced by the well not to drink the water because it was a health hazard, says Sue Keith, the current water-quality adviser for the City of Phoenix.

Five years later, the city closed the well for health reasons. In early 1988, the DEQ once again Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 The woman says she can't talk anymore about the plant and the lawsuit and the pregnancy. All she cares about is protecting her daughter. "If you don't mind, I've gone through enough," she says wearily. "And so has my daughter. I don't think we need to go through anymore."

In the meantime, the company is still discharging wastewater into the lagoon, which is perfectly okay, says plant manager Ice, because the acid is neutralized so that it's no longer a health or environmental hazard. "We don't have anything here that's toxic," he says.

Ice strongly denies the groundwater has been polluted by his plant's pit. "Until they prove that the pit is where it's coming from, I don't think you have any basis to assume that," he says, noting that a private company is currently monitoring the plant's groundwater and "everything is fine."

Research Chemicals has repeatedly denied that it has exposed employees or the environment to unhealthy wastes.

The plant manager is a bit touchy about the odoriferous hole out back.

The concept of such a lagoon is as old as the Industrial Revolution.

"You could find dozens of other cases like this and I get depressed when I think about it."

"Nobody in the state seems to want to do anything about telling people to clean this stuff up."

Amanatullah says the pit was probably never investigated because his department is terribly bogged down.

"Wastewater from the six-inch pipe was channeling through about two inches of a reddish-orange sludge."

"We know what the concerns are for an open pit these days and we want to close it as soon as possible.

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Terry Greene

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