The City of Phoenix knew it was buying a lemon when it condemned the Estes Landfill to make room for flood-control improvements along the Salt River in the early 1980s. The landfill, located on the riverbank east of Sky Harbor Airport, had been one of the very first toxic-waste sites in Arizona pinpointed by state environmental officials following passage of the federal Superfund cleanup law in 1977.

But the real cost to Phoenix residents to clean up its toxic mess is only now beginning to take shape. And it ain't a pretty sight--more than $1 million just for preliminary studies of the pollution, according to payments approved by the Phoenix City Council in the past month.

The consultants haven't even estimated the cost of the actual cleanup, which could run millions more judging by the cost to clean up other local toxic-waste nightmares.

When the river channel was altered to protect the airport from flooding, barrels of solvents and other industrial waste were discovered. But officials don't yet know the extent of groundwater contamination caused by the dumping.

One obvious solution, of course, would be to bill the polluters and let the rest of us get back to important things, like watching Browning-Ferris Industries hustle its "citizens' petition" to build yet another dump on a riverbank (the Agua Fria River in El Mirage). However, in order to bill the polluters, you first have to find the polluters.

City Hall, it turns out, didn't even start looking for the people responsible for the pollution until a few months ago. Considering the Estes dump closed in 1972, and Phoenix has owned it since 1982, the delay makes finding the people who dumped toxic wastes there more than somewhat complicated, admits Craig Reece, assistant city attorney in charge of cost recovery.

"We are talking with the former owner-operators of the landfill about turning over their business records, which would enable us to learn which companies used the dump," Reece says. "Once you have those names, you can try to interview former employees about what they dumped there.

"But the owner-operators have indicated they do not have any business records."

Back when the city acquired the landfill, a few voices representing John Q. and Jane Public piped up to question who'd clean it up. Not to worry, City Hall said then, the state will clean it up. Or the feds. Or the state and the feds would make the landowner, Valley National Bank, and the dump operators clean it up.

None of that came to pass, acknowledges George Britton, deputy city manager in charge of environmental services.

"In '82 the state said they would clean it up," Britton says. "When it became clear they would not, or at least would not do it in a timely fashion, we initiated some studies. That was about a year ago."

As Reece describes it, the former operators were local gents who had a contract to pick up garbage in unincorporated areas of the county. They also got paid to accept waste from an undetermined number of industries. It was a comfortable living, Reece says, but none of the operators got rich enough to shell out millions of dollars to clean up the chemical contamination left behind when they closed down.

The city's lawsuit also names VNB as a potentially responsible party. Despite the downturn in the local economy, VNB qualifies, at least for purposes of collecting a few million dollars, as a deep pocket.

Reece, however, is not optimistic about this avenue of cost recovery. "Judges in [Superfund cost-recovery] suits have tended to apportion financial responsibility evenly, which means it's likely VNB would only be held responsible for 50 percent of the cost and we'd still be stuck with the rest," he says. "It's in our interest to find as many potentially responsible parties as possible."

What about the huge legal expense of digging up (perhaps literally) all the parties responsible for polluting the Estes Landfill? At minimum, even if all goes well and enough polluters are found to reimburse Phoenix coffers for the cleanup, the public probably will have to eat the city's legal fees, Reece says.

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Kathleen Stanton