Scottsdale's Drinking Problem

Early in 1995, Mary Simmerer stumbled upon an alarming situation.
Simmerer, who manages a section of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality that monitors compliance with drinking-water regulations, discovered that on one day--November 24, 1994--the city of Scottsdale served approximately 70,000 of its citizens drinking water containing illegal levels of a suspected carcinogen--trichloroethylene, commonly known by its acronym, TCE.

Although the effects of TCE on human health continue to be debated, credible scientific studies link the chemical to heart defects and leukemia among children whose mothers consumed TCE-contaminated water during pregnancy. Other studies say the chemical is dangerous in drinking water only when large amounts of it are consumed over long time periods.

But scientists have shown enough connection among TCE and a number of life-threatening illnesses that the Environmental Protection Agency and DEQ have chosen to err on the side of extreme caution in regulating consumption of the chemical, typically used as an industrial cleaning solvent.

The state of Arizona requires cities to notify their citizens and state regulators almost immediately if drinking-water TCE levels exceed either daily or annual limits set by the government.

By Simmerer's calculations, on November 24, 1994, Scottsdale exposed tens of thousands of its citizens to more waterborne TCE than those citizens should have encountered in an entire year.

Such a test result would normally trigger an immediate telephone call or fax to state regulators, as well as notification of the public through television, radio and newspapers. Ordinarily, that result would also force the city to shut off the source of the contaminated water--in this case, a treatment plant designed to strip TCE from polluted groundwater.

Scottsdale had done none of these things.
When Simmerer met with Scottsdale officials in February 1995, they blamed the high TCE reading on an error committed by the environmental lab hired to test the water from the treatment plant. That lab, Westech Laboratories Inc., subsequently submitted a "corrected" report to Scottsdale, which showed the amount of TCE in the water to be roughly one third the amount initially reported.

According to state regulations, even the corrected result represented a violation that required immediate notification of regulators and residents.

But Scottsdale would not alert the public.
"They [Scottsdale] refused to do public notice and told us they would fight us every inch of the way," Simmerer testified earlier this year in legal proceedings against Westech.

Eventually, public records show, Simmerer's efforts to determine if Scottsdale had violated state drinking-water regulations led to an investigation of the city's water department by the Arizona Attorney General's Office. State telephone records show that the criminal-investigations section of the Environmental Protection Agency also investigated Scottsdale's water department, but it is unknown whether the EPA was conducting its own probe or simply assisting the state attorney general.

State documents also reveal that Simmerer prompted the state Department of Health Services to conduct a third investigation, this one focused on Westech's laboratory practices. That probe, in turn, has resulted in a DHS effort to revoke Westech's state laboratory license based, among other things, on the allegation that it had falsified water-testing data, including Scottsdale's. A hearing on that revocation is now under way.

Officials at DEQ, DHS and the Arizona Attorney General's Office have declined comment on Scottsdale's TCE-reporting problems until the Westech license case is resolved; a decision in that case may not come for months.

But the available public record raises serious questions about the city of Scottsdale's reaction to its drinking-water problems:

Why did the city of Scottsdale delay in submitting some high-TCE test results to state and federal regulators, not for days, or for weeks, but for months?

Why didn't the city immediately inform citizens of tests that showed TCE levels were above health limits 17 times during a six-month period?

Why did Scottsdale choose Westech, a lab that had done work for Motorola Inc., a company suspected of polluting underground water reserves, when other labs without apparent conflicts of interest were available?

Why, when the state initially moved to revoke Westech's operating license, did high-level state officials, including Governor J. Fife Symington III, intervene on Westech's behalf?

Taken together, those questions raise another: Did the city of Scottsdale knowingly serve contaminated water to its own citizens, because doing so was financially and politically expeditious?

An attorney for the city of Scottsdale claims any assertion that the city intentionally violated drinking-water regulations or endangered public health is "absolutely false." Scottsdale officials claim the failure to report high TCE readings stemmed from an honest misunderstanding of how to calculate TCE limits.

But there are reasons to question the city's claims. Many of those reasons are contained in public files relating to the operation of a testing firm known as Westech Laboratories Inc.

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Terry Greene Sterling