MOTOROLA THE STORY SO FAR | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona


On May 6, 1992, New Times began a series of investigative reports detailing extensive groundwater pollution linked to Motorola, an $11 billion multinational electronics manufacturing company that is the state's largest employer. Among the findings: Motorola's two flagship plants have been linked to severe contamination of two separate aquifers in...
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On May 6, 1992, New Times began a series of investigative reports detailing extensive groundwater pollution linked to Motorola, an $11 billion multinational electronics manufacturing company that is the state's largest employer. Among the findings:

Motorola's two flagship plants have been linked to severe contamination of two separate aquifers in the Valley--one in Scottsdale and one in east Phoenix. Both sites have been placed on the federal Superfund list. Thus far, Motorola has invested nearly $30 million in cleanup efforts at both sites.

City water officials say all Valley drinking water is now safe, largely because they have abandoned the polluted groundwater sources in favor of water supplied by manmade desert lakes.

The Motorola Government Electronics Complex, at Hayden and McDowell in Scottsdale, is the largest of four suspected polluters of the north Indian Bend Wash aquifer, which once was considered a potable drinking-water source for 350,000 people. Today most of its untreated water is unsafe for drinking. The Superfund site is bounded on the north by Chaparral Road, on the east by Pima Road, on the west by Scottsdale Road and on the south by McKellips Road. Cleanup of the drinking water is expected to begin in 1993. No one knows for sure how long residents were exposed to contaminated drinking water. In-depth health studies have not been performed.

The Motorola semiconductor plant at 52nd Street and McDowell in Phoenix is linked to a plume of groundwater contamination that is so vast officials have been unable to chart it since it was discovered ten years ago. The plume now extends from the plant west beyond 24th Street and south beyond Van Buren Street. The groundwater near the plant has not been used for public drinking-water supplies, although state law considers it a future drinking-water source. The contaminated plume originating at Motorola has traveled into one of the Valley's most productive aquifers and officials fear that it might someday contaminate virgin drinking-water supplies. Motorola recently began pumping water from the aquifer, stripping it of TCE, and using the water for manufacturing.

The contamination at both sites was caused by dumping of thousands of gallons of industrial solvents into unlined lagoons, dry wells and down the drain, federal and state records say. Such industrial dumping was not illegal in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. However, at least as early as 1966, the company knew that dumping solvents into unlined lagoons could have serious environmental consequences. The contamination problem was exacerbated at different times by state and federal regulators entrusted with protecting the groundwater. In Scottsdale officials allowed substantial pollution of the Indian Bend Wash by not cementing old wells that cascaded contaminated water into the drinking-water aquifer. In Phoenix city officials lobbied to have the state, notorious for lax standards, not the EPA, be the lead agency to oversee "cleanup" of the 52nd Street site. Without sufficient federal scrutiny, the state allowed its largest employer to take over the cleanup reins. For several years, the state permitted the company to collect and interpret environmental data upon which all key decisions were made without first checking the data for accuracy.

The principal contaminant at both sites is the industrial solvent TCE, or trichloroethylene, which the federal government classifies as a suspected carcinogen. The health effects of TCE are hotly disputed, but it has been linked with leukemia as well as kidney, liver and central nervous system disorders. Measurements of TCE-contaminated groundwater near the Motorola 52nd Street plant are among the highest recorded in the United States.

Two separate class-action lawsuits against Motorola are now winding their way through Arizona courts. The plaintiffs allege that the contamination has caused health problems and declining real estate values. In court papers, Motorola has denied both allegations.

State regulators abdicated their public relations responsibilities to Motorola's consultants from 1985 to 1991. During that time, only one public meeting was held with citizens.

Since 1985 there has been a raging national debate over whether TCE and other chlorinated solvents can be removed from the nation's aquifers. Some scientists say it might take 1,000 years for aquifers to be purged of TCE.

Motorola's own consultants informed the state in 1986 that it might be impossible to remove the TCE from beneath the plant.

Citizens were not informed of the debate over the cleanup of their aquifer by the local news media, Motorola or state and federal regulators.

Motorola admits it has back-billed the Department of Defense for undisclosed cleanup costs of the Indian Bend Wash Superfund site.

In the waning days of the current Bush administration, EPA officials are quietly redesigning Superfund policy. The new Superfund plan will shift funds and attention to those few sites that pose immediate "risks" to public health. Groundwater contamination sites not deemed an immediate "risk," such as the Motorola 52nd Street site, will be placed on a long-term cleanup list. The EPA says the program will streamline Superfund; environmentalists say the plan goes against the intent of the Superfund law, which is to hold all polluters accountable. In Arizona the director of the Department of Environmental Quality says the state Superfund is moving toward the model of cleaning up contaminated sites according to their "risk."

There is a continuing debate among water officials over whether the aquifer polluted by Motorola 52nd Street will be tapped during a severe drought, such as the drought currently ravaging California. In California's San Gabriel Valley, citizens are being charged higher water bills because their groundwater must first be stripped of TCE before it is drinkable. There is no financial mechanism in place to ensure that Arizona citizens would not have to pay to have solvents cleaned from their groundwater in times of drought.

The two state agencies entrusted with preserving Arizona's groundwater for future generations differ over how to contend with the state's polluted groundwater. The Arizona Department of Water Resources favors forcing polluters to pay for as much cleanup as possible now. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is moving toward the national Superfund "risk-based" plan.

Both state and federal health assessments of the sites have been cursory and inadequate. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry "health assessments" of Superfund sites has been criticized for its scientific inadequacy by a General Accounting Office panel of scientists. State health officials themselves concede that their statistics on cancer in the two Superfund sites are incomplete.

Frustrated by the undocumented illnesses in the neighborhoods near the plants, citizens have attempted to conduct their own amateur epidemiological studies. Among those who say they logged unusual numbers of illnesses are a state legislator, a theology student who conducted an exhaustive telephone survey, an advocate for the Mexicano-Chicano community and a former Motorola worker.

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