Scottsdale's Spin

In the wake of a report that Scottsdale served 70,000 residents drinking water laced with illegal levels of a suspected carcinogen, city officials have responded by lobbying Governor J. Fife Symington III and one of his appointees, Russell Rhoades, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

The New Times story, "Scottsdale's Drinking Problem," was published December 5.

Scottsdale officials are publicly focusing their outrage on Mary Simmerer, manager of the DEQ unit that monitors compliance with drinking-water rules.

Simmerer's original investigation of Scottsdale's water department spawned two additional, ongoing investigations--one by the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the other by the criminal investigations division of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Those probes have turned up allegations that Scottsdale and Westech Laboratories, Inc., which tested Scottsdale's water, deliberately falsified data on drinking water produced by a North Indian Bend Wash Superfund treatment plant. The plant is designed to strip Scottsdale's groundwater of the suspected carcinogen trichloroethylene, or TCE.

Investigators also allege that Scottsdale officials withheld data showing drinking water contained unhealthful levels of TCE from state and federal regulators as well as citizens from August 1994 to January 1995. During this same six-month period, citizens were served water with TCE that exceeded state health limits 17 times, EPA records show.

Scottsdale officials repeatedly have denied wrongdoing, and maintain that residents didn't get a single drop of water exceeding health limits.

Simmerer's investigations also led the Arizona Department of Health Services to conduct a separate investigation of Westech's laboratory practices. This investigation has resulted in the state's efforts to revoke Westech's license in an ongoing hearing.

Shortly after the New Times article was published, Simmerer testified at the Westech hearing about how a Scottsdale water official huddled with Westech's lab director in May 1995, on the eve of a critical meeting between city officials and investigators from EPA and DEQ.

She testified that she suspected the Scottsdale-Westech meeting was held to deliberately falsify data showing high TCE readings in Scottsdale drinking water.

She said her suspicion was based on the fact that on the day after the Scottsdale-Westech meeting, Scottsdale presented EPA and state regulators with a letter from Westech that said the high TCE readings could be explained away as laboratory mistakes.

Westech officials have declined to comment, citing the ongoing hearing. But they have denied wrongdoing in pleadings connected with the revocation hearing.

Simmerer refused comment to New Times, citing the ongoing hearing.
But in what appears to be a diversionary tactic, Scottsdale officials have focused on Simmerer and her "opinions" while downplaying the findings of EPA and state investigators.

"The City of Scottsdale is exasperated by recent allegations made by an employee [Simmerer] of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regarding our compliance with state drinking water standards," Scottsdale Mayor Sam Kathryn Campana wrote Symington on the day the New Times article was published. (Doug Cole, Governor Symington's spokesperson, did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.)

During an interview with New Times, Campana says Simmerer is "just wrong."
"We continue to enjoy the confidence of the director [Rhoades]," Campana adds. "There was a pretty positive meeting this morning with Russell Rhoades. I haven't been briefed on it yet, but that's how it was characterized to me."

Since the article was published, Scottsdale officials have met at least one other time with Rhoades, DEQ officials confirm.

Agency officials won't comment on Rhoades' reaction to Scottsdale's lobbying efforts, and DEQ responded to a public-records request for documents pertaining to the meetings by saying no public records were created.

Because no DEQ official will comment, it is not known what, if any, effects Scottsdale's lobbying efforts have had on Simmerer.

Campana says the Scottsdale City Council will not launch its own investigation into the actions of the water department. "I can't think of any instance in my 10 years where we as a city council have ever investigated anything like that," she says. "We are well-represented by our legal department and they brief us on these things.

"At the end of this, if we are ruled against or something like that, we sure would [investigate]," Campana says.

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Terry Greene Sterling