Longform

MOTOROLA

Jeanine herself got cancer in her late 40s. Before she died in 1989, she told her daughter Lisa that she suspected that living near the plant had a lot to do with the family's illnesses.

Then Jeanine's husband, Tom, got cancer.
Next, Lisa got cancer.
Now 31, Lisa thinks a lot about her childhood, about the funny smelling air and the toilets backing up. But most of all, she worries about the Big Ditch," where she and her sisters had a fort.

A drainage pipe coming from the Motorola property emptied onto the Big Ditch" in an empty desert lot south of Brill Street. Sometimes the ditch had water in it. The kids loved playing in it, loved making and eating mud pies and splashing each other and going after crawdads.

We played there every day," Lisa recalls. Some days the crawdads would all be dead, floating on the top of the water."

THE McNAMARA FAMILY moved out of its house shortly before the plume of contamination was discovered. Motorola says the company was a good corporate citizen" back in 1982, when it reported an apparent" solvent leak in an underground tank on the Motorola property and notified the state of the potential" for contamination.

State officials investigating the reported leak discovered a plume of water contaminated with TCE-and the highest reading of TCE ever logged in the state. A state report says the TCE reading was the highest yet found in EPA's Region IX, which includes California's Silicon Valley.

The plume of contamination is so vast that officials do not yet know exactly where it ends. From the Motorola plant, the plume snakes west beneath heavily populated neighborhoods and ends someplace west of 24th Street. It travels south beyond the Papago Freeway, which was elevated during construction to avoid the groundwater contamination.

Though the extent of the pollution is still unknown ten years after its discovery, state records link Motorola with the plume. Potential sources of contamination include past surface discharges, spills, tank and pipe leaks, and discharges into leach fields and dry wells" at the Motorola plant.

Based on conservative assumptions, it was estimated that approximately 200,000 gallons of chlorinated solvents were disposed at plant site sources...It was estimated that TCE was disposed in greatest quantities-116,000 gallons," a 1991 Department of Environmental Quality report says.

The state report relies on figures provided by Motorola. But today, Motorola consultants say the potential sources of contamination" were, for the most part, greatly exaggerated."

In 1983, a science teacher named George de Lange contacted journalist Kathleen Stanton. He said he worked the graveyard shift at Motorola in the late 1960s. I personally saw hundreds of gallons of TCE dumped on the ground in back of the chem-mix facility and also down the drains at the plating department," he wrote the newspaper.

Ken Phillips, a Motorola spokesman, questioned de Lange's comments. I don't know if any one account from one person would give a good account of what went on," the spokesman said.

Despite its unprecedented contamination, the 52nd Street site was not put on the federal Superfund list until seven years after the contamination was first discovered. By then, Motorola had already worked out a cleanup agreement with the state.

The federal agency was allowed only to have a Superfund liaison on the cleanup team. EPA was not always welcomed by either the state or Motorola. An EPA consultant wrote on March 4, 1984, that Chuck Anders, then head of the division of the state health department that handled environmental regulation, told EPA that there would be devastating" repercussions if the federal government took over the project.

The state was being aggressive" with Motorola, Anders said. No deals" were cut between the state and Motorola.

Anders now works for Motorola's consultants handling the 52nd Street Superfund site. He says he remembers objecting to EPA's idea of taking some sort of punitive or enforcement action" against the company. It would only serve to thrust Motorola into a confrontational mode," that might end up in the courts, he says. This, in turn, would keep the company from working on the aquifer. We felt things were going along okay," he says. The record will show that the state conducted an aggressive investigation," he says.

Another reason EPA was pushed onto the sidelines of the 52nd Street cleanup was the fact that the City of Phoenix defended Motorola after the contamination was discovered.

In 1984, Phoenix wrote a letter to the state health department protesting interference from EPA. We believe that Arizona entities understand Arizona water problems," wrote William Chase, the city's water resources management adviser. We are concerned that this program not become an excuse whose primary purpose is to identify and prosecute some guilty party or parties," Chase went on.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene