Longform

MOTOROLA

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Oh, brother. We definitely drank it. There's no doubt," says Lisa McNamara, who lived just four doors down from the Motorola plant. It just makes me sick that the city didn't start testing the wells earlier."

Lisa McNamara has reason to be angry. Various members of her family have been stricken with illnesses suspected to be caused by TCE-birth defects, cancer, autoimmune disease, kidney problems.

People in McNamara's old neighborhood-and other neighborhoods in the two Superfund sites-have banded together to target Motorola in two separate class-action lawsuits now winding their way through two Arizona courts.

Among other things, the lawsuits allege Motorola (in one lawsuit, other companies are named as well) was negligent in releasing TCE and other chemicals into the environment. Both suits allege that people in the neighborhoods were exposed to TCE, and that TCE causes health problems. The plaintiffs ask for unspecified damages, and long-term medical monitoring funded by Motorola.

In court papers, Motorola denies negligence, denies dumping TCE and denies that TCE even causes health problems. ÔWe strongly deny all of the plaintiffs' assertions of wrongdoing, and reaffirm our commitment to sound environmental practices that protect our employees, neighbors and others," says a press release issued by Motorola shortly after the lawsuits were filed. ²BOTH OF THE TCE-contaminated aquifers beneath and near the Motorola plants have been targeted for cleanup under the federal Superfund law. And Motorola, while refusing to admit that it polluted, has spent nearly $30 million on cleanup efforts.

But cleanup has been painfully slow.
In January, Motorola began to clean a portion of the 52nd Street aquifer. It will be another year before substantial cleanup of Indian Bend Wash begins.

The contamination problem was exacerbated at different times by either state or federal regulators entrusted with protecting the groundwater.

Federal and state regulators contributed to substantial pollution of Indian Bend Wash by not cementing old wells that cascaded TCE-laced water into the drinking-water aquifer.

A federal official admits that the Environmental Protection Agency has chosen a slower cleanup remedy for Indian Bend Wash in part because EPA must take into account that Motorola and other companies might resist paying for more expensive remedies.

In the case of the Motorola 52nd Street plant, the City of Phoenix actually protested takeover of that site by the EPA, preferring instead to place the cleanup in the hands of the state, a regulatory entity less stringent than the federal government.

Without sufficient federal scrutiny, the state allowed Motorola to take over the cleanup reins. Until several months ago, when a new director assumed leadership of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the state relied for all its data on reports supplied by Motorola's consultants, without checking on the accuracy of the information. The quality of the data is now being questioned by a new generation of regulators and neighborhood groups.

A 1989 cleanup agreement between the state and Motorola is criticized by the EPA for allowing Motorola too many loopholes.

Today, 12 years after officials discovered the pollution, the damage is far more devastating than anyone expected. Today, the state and federal regulators cannot predict when the two aquifers will be cleaned up. They cannot say if the contamination will ever be completely cleaned up.

They cannot project the ultimate costs of the cleanup.
The public owns that water, and it has been taken away from us," says Jim Lemmon, a public-health lobbyist and environmental consultant. In the early 1980s, Lemmon investigated the contaminated aquifers at Indian Bend Wash, and was one of the few state regulators who warned that the plumes were spreading rapidly and must be dealt with quickly.

To this day, Lemmon says, residents of Phoenix and Scottsdale still do not understand that they have lost a precious resource-two underground aquifers. There is even a state law, passed belatedly in the mid-1980s, that says all groundwater should be treated as potential drinking water. There is very little attention paid to the fact that this resource has been damaged, and will probably never be returned to its original state," says Lemmon.

Motorola's Don Netko says there is no loss of resource," because all water, once it is pumped from the aquifers, will meet stringent federal drinking water standards. But no one, not even Netko, will say for sure that the aquifers themselves will ever be completely cleaned of TCE.

THE MOTOROLA STORY is a modern drama that is playing itself out across America. This nation pioneered the high-tech industry in the post-World War II years. Throughout the United States, communities that once welcomed the smokeless clean" semiconductor factories as the answer to their postwar economic malaise are now faced with groundwater pollution, especially by TCE.

About one-half of the 1,300 Superfund sites across the United States contain TCE.

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Terry Greene