Longform

MOTOROLA

DANIEL E. NOBLE was hardly a charismatic patriarch. He was bald and soft-bellied, with a thin, stiff smile. His favorite conversations centered on transistor design.

Nobody paid much attention in 1949 when he opened a research lab on North Central Avenue called Motorola." But it wasn't long before folks renamed the stone-faced entrepreneur the Father of Arizona Electronics." With Noble in charge, the Phoenix branch of the relatively obscure Midwestern car-radio firm boomed in the postwar years. In its first decade, the company opened several electronics manufacturing plants in the Valley. By 1970 Motorola had become the state's largest employer, a distinction the firm holds to this day with its 20,000 employees.

Doctor Dan," as admirers referred to him, often noted that Motorola was a good corporate neighbor. Phoenix and Motorola had matured together, paving the way for other electronics firms to move to Arizona. The vision, he said, was to create in the Valley of the Sun one of America's foremost high-tech centers.

Arizona's low taxes, nonunion labor force, dry climate (less investment was necessary to control humidity in the sensitive electronics plants) and a plentiful supply of clean water so essential to electronics manufacturing all combined to make Noble's vision a reality.

He was proud of Motorola's two flagship plants. The first, located at 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix, was for decades the world's largest semiconductor firm. The second was a fortresslike compound-the Government Electronics complex on the lush Indian Bend Wash, near Hayden and McDowell roads in Scottsdale. The secretive Government Electronics plant manufactured high-tech military and aerospace equipment.

As the Valley's role in the high-tech industry grew, Noble liked to point out that Motorola provided clean" plants, unlike the factories blowing sour smoke in the manufacturing cities of the northeastern United States.

If only he'd been correct.
The image pushed by Noble that Motorola represented a clean high-tech future for Arizona was just that, image.

Shortly after Noble's death, his beloved Motorola would be directly linked to groundwater contamination of such massive scale that no government agency-municipal, state or federal-can accurately map the extent of it. In fact, his two showpiece Motorola plants would eventually end up on the nation's Superfund list.

The Indian Bend Wash aquifer in Scottsdale was once considered a potable drinking water source for 350,000 people. Today, its untreated waters are no longer safe for drinking. The other aquifer beneath the 52nd Street semiconductor factory had never been used for public drinking water. But like all Arizona groundwater, it was valued instead as a precious resource to help carry the growing desert city through future periods of severe drought when runoff is depleted.

Today, all drinking water in Scottsdale and Phoenix is safe, largely because the cities abandoned the polluted groundwater sources in favor of water supplied by manmade desert lakes designed to catch mountain runoff.

This doesn't allay the fears of those people who live in Scottsdale and Phoenix and are certain that they drank and bathed in contaminated water for an unknown number of years.

The aquifer pollution, though still not completely charted, is better understood than suspected health effects in the neighborhoods surrounding the Motorola plants. The contaminated drinking water was laced with trichloroethylene, or TCE, a suspected carcinogen. Although the health effects of TCE are hotly disputed, the chemical also has been linked by some experts to kidney, liver and central-nervous-system illnesses. Valley residents who suspect that their health was ruined by Motorola are now beginning to speak out.

BACK IN DANIEL NOBLE'S heyday, no one, least of all the people who lived near the Motorola plants, could have guessed that Motorola wasn't the good neighbor it made itself out to be. No one but Motorola, that is.

As early as 1965, Motorola knew it might be endangering the environment by pouring industrial solvents-health-threatening chemicals-from several of its plants into unlined lagoons in the backyard of the Government Electronics property on Indian Bend Wash.

A 1965 internal Motorola memo obtained by New Times details how 30,000 gallons of solvents gathered from all the Motorola plants had been, as the memo itself states, dumped" into the lagoons in the past year. The Motorola memo concludes that such dumping could result in serious consequences from a contamination standpoint." According to the memo, three times as many solvents-about 90,000 gallons-have gone down the drain...and could complicate matters in event of an incident involving sewer vapors."

A year later, in 1966, the concern over solvent dumping in the unlined lagoons on Indian Bend Wash is underscored in a second interoffice communique. Solvents are dumped into leaching beds [lagoons] to evaporate" at the Government Electronics plant, which is worrisome because of local ordinances governing soil contamination, fire hazards, water-table contamination and the legal problems which might well arise," the second memo says. ²It is unclear from records when the dumping ended. Motorola did not fill in its lagoons until 1980, 15 years after the first memo on dumping was written.

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Terry Greene