Marshmallow Roast

Kim MacEachern, Mary Simmerer and Peggy Guichard-Watters are women of unusual courage and honor.

But these three environmental regulators have learned, painfully, that in a government ruled by J. Fife Symington III, state workers who display courage and honor may well find their heads on the chopping block.

Three weeks ago, Symington's chief hand puppet at the Department of Environmental Quality, director Russell Rhoades, told MacEachern, who directed DEQ's water-quality division, to do something that was both unethical and stupid.

Rhoades demanded that MacEachern transfer Simmerer and Guichard-Watters, even though both were first-rate experts in drinking-water regulation, and even though neither had done anything wrong.

Still, Rhoades--whose obedience to Symington has earned him the nickname of Mr. Marshmallow--demanded that MacEachern exile these two water experts to boring, powerless corners of the DEQ bureaucracy, where they would have nothing to do with the regulation of drinking water. Forced to choose between saving her own skin and sacrificing Simmerer and Guichard-Watters, MacEachern did the only ethical thing.

She resigned.
Less than a week later, Rhoades did what MacEachern refused to do: He banished Simmerer and Guichard-Watters to the DEQ outback.

All of this happened because these three women did something unusual--at least, they did something unusual for the Symington administration. They did their jobs. They uncovered a real public-health threat involving the City of Scottsdale's drinking water, and they tried to protect the city's residents from that threat.

In 1995, Simmerer, then responsible for enforcing state drinking-water regulations, discovered that Scottsdale had served 70,000 residents water that contained dangerous amounts of a suspected carcinogen called TCE on 17 separate occasions in one short six-month period of 1994 and 1995. Her bosses, Guichard-Watters and MacEachern, supported her in a long and nerve-racking investigation of Scottsdale's water department.

Simmerer uncovered so much dirt--including a testing lab that allegedly falsified test data to make Scottsdale's water look clean and healthful when it wasn't--that the state and federal governments began criminal investigations of Scottsdale's water department. Both of those probes continue today.

Simmerer's hard, honest work put the City of Scottsdale in an embarrassing and, perhaps, expensive position. The city had been telling its citizens that nothing dangerous had happened, that there was no reason for alarm.

But Simmerer's investigation showed that a few city workers apparently had known that TCE-contaminated water had been served to the populace--as it was happening. That knowledge could open the city to a troublesome class-action lawsuit with especially sympathetic victims: pregnant mothers, infants, small children, the frail and the elderly, among others.

Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana and her city council of real estate agents responded to Simmerer's revelations not by sacking the city staffers responsible for allowing contamination into city water. No, the mayor decided she would push for a cover-up, lobbying Governor Symington and Rhoades to punish not the wrongdoers, but Simmerer, the person who had uncovered the wrongdoing.

There has to be a reason Mayor Campana chose the cover-up route, and I think I know what it is. I think Campana didn't want Scottsdale citizens to know something. I think the mayor didn't want anyone to know that the Scottsdale city government had served unhealthful water to its citizens simply because pumping tainted water was cheaper and more politically expeditious than shutting it off.

Consider these facts:
The drinking water in question had been produced by a treatment plant designed to strip TCE from groundwater pumped out of Scottsdale's North Indian Bend Wash Superfund site. Although it was operated by the city, that plant had been built by Motorola and the other high-tech firms that had polluted the groundwater under the wash years before. Motorola is, quite simply, the biggest political power in Scottsdale and one of the most powerful political bullies in Arizona.

After Simmerer, MacEachern and Guichard-Watters discovered that the TCE plant was not working, they joined forces with the Environmental Protection Agency and shut down the plant. During the period the plant was shut down, Scottsdale was forced to buy water from the City of Phoenix, at a cost of more than $1 million. This is precisely the sort of expense the city was trying to avoid when it attempted to hide that the TCE plant wasn't working. But the city's cover-up push wasn't entirely based on money. Politics was also involved.

A testing laboratory, Westech Laboratories Inc., was at the center of Scottsdale's TCE scandal. Westech's state license to test drinking water had been suspended, in part because of allegations it falsified test results of Scottsdale water, telling state regulators the water was clean when it actually contained illegal amounts of TCE. The lab's rich, politically connected owners have whined to the governor and anyone who will listen that they have been picked on by the state.

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Terry Greene Sterling