Following one of America's largest groundwater contaminations, the government allowed the polluter, Motorola, to inform the public of the consequences. The media played along with pedestrian "parts per billion" coverage that minimized the calamity. The effect was spin-control that would have made the chamber of commerce blush.
Were you aware, for example, that Motorola's own consultants warned that the TCE may never be purged from your aquifer?
VELMA DUNN DREADED delivering the bleak news to the crowd assembled at the Balsz School cafeteria one evening in October 1991.
The 64-year-old real estate broker took a deep breath and looked down at stacks of public records detailing severe and extensive groundwater pollution linked to Motorola--Arizona's largest employer. Then she faced the people who had grown to trust her.
Dunn had marshaled these owners of working-class homes near the Motorola semiconductor plant at 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix into successfully pressuring city fathers to modify zoning for the neighborhoods.
This accomplished, Dunn and the homeowners had dreamed of assembling their properties and selling the combined parcels as a package to commercial developers.
But now the dream was dead.
On a California trip earlier in the spring, Dunn learned during a casual conversation with an environmental consultant that the properties would not be marketable because a massive expanse of polluted groundwater originated beneath the Motorola plant. The plume snaked underground beneath the very homes she had hoped to sell. The contamination had earned the Motorola site a seat on the federal Superfund list in 1989.
Velma Dunn knew the land wouldn't sell to commercial developers who, under federal law, would assume at least some risk for liability for contamination beneath the land. The crushing of Dunn's entrepreneurial dream transformed her into a community activist with a keen interest in this environmental disaster.
And on this particular evening, Velma Dunn had more bad news for those gathered at the Balsz School cafeteria.
She told the crowd that the contamination beneath Motorola might never be cleaned up.
during the four years she had put together her now-doomed real estate project, Dunn says she remained blissfully unaware that a suspected carcinogen, the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, had poisoned the aquifer beneath the properties she was trying to market. Those homeowners who had vague recollections about a pollution problem linked to Motorola had been assured by state and federal officials entrusted with protecting the groundwater that "cleanup" would do just that--clean up the aquifers. Remove the TCE. Restore the underground water supply to its pure, chemical-free natural state.
Unbeknownst to the general public, Motorola's own consultants as well as state and federal officials have feared since 1986 that all the TCE might not be captured from beneath the Motorola plant on 52nd Street, New Times has learned.
What's more, for several years, many state and federal regulators have been aware of a raging debate over whether current technology can completely remove TCE and similar solvents from aquifers throughout the state, and, indeed, the nation.
But in Phoenix, those citizens most directly affected by TCE pollution had remained unaware that the toxic chemical might never be completely cleaned from their tainted groundwater supplies.
The national debate over aquifer cleanup has been raging for at least five years and presents a touchy public relations problem for environmental regulators.
TCE has been detected in roughly half of the 1,300 Superfund sites across the nation. Officials who once begged "clean" high-tech firms like Motorola to set up shop in their communities now look to federal and state governments to fix the serious pollution problem caused by the industries they once welcomed.
But a decade after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began ordering suspected corporate polluters like Motorola to install multimillion-dollar cleanup systems to remove TCE, the stubborn chemical remains in many "treated" aquifers, according to several scientific reports obtained by New Times. Using current technology, some of America's aquifers might not be completely cleaned up for 1,000 years, a 1991 U.S. Department of Energy report says. This means that for centuries, water pumped out of some TCE-contaminated aquifers would have to undergo expensive treatment before it is fit for drinking. This is bad news for Arizona, where vast plumes of TCE-laced groundwater lie beneath the desert cities of Tucson and Phoenix.
"To my knowledge, there is no proven way to get TCE out of many aquifers," says Douglas Mackay, a professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Mackay serves on a National Research Council committee that is studying the failure of modern technology to completely purge TCE and other solvents from the nation's tainted groundwater supplies.
State environmental officials interviewed for this story acknowledge that it may be impossible to completely cleanse aquifers of TCE and other similar chemicals, but most of these regulators are wary of the public's reaction to this news. The government is cautious with the truth: Why "panic" or "confuse" citizens by reporting the controversy?