Taken to the Cleaners

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Critics of SB 1448 contend it is unconstitutional because it specifically names Alsco as its beneficiary, and Bowers now says he has chosen not to push for its passage.

He now claims he wrote the legislation to focus attention on "a gross abuse of process" against Alsco by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. He says he's studied "thousands of pages" of documents that show Alsco has been "mistreated" by DEQ because Alsco "had assets to go after."

"I've told Maroney's many times, 'This isn't against you,'" says Bowers.
That's not how Charlotte Walton sees things.
Oddly enough, Alsco asked Walton to sign on to SB 1448, offering to include language that would free Maroney's from cleanup liability and major expense, too.

Walton refused.
"It wouldn't be right," she tells New Times. "We don't want special-interest favoritism. But we would like justice."

Charlotte Walton remembers receiving her first "threatening and unfriendly" letter from Alsco attorney Jim Vieregg in 1992. The letter accused Maroney's of contaminating the West Buchanan site when it operated the dry-cleaning and laundry plant in the 1970s.

At the time, Walton was happily running Maroney's, and had no idea there was any controversy over the plant her dad had sold to Alsco.

She soon learned, however, that the Alsco plant sits in the middle of the West Van Buren state Superfund site, a 25-square-mile tract where several companies have dumped dangerous chemicals into the earth. The Alsco site is the most contaminated in the West Van Buren Superfund area. Groundwater beneath the Alsco property is laced with PERC at levels up to 6,600 times the allowable limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency. "Pump and treat" cleanup, which would cost about $10.5 million, would entail pumping the groundwater from the site and removing the PERC by shooting the contaminated water up into enclosed towers, allowing the chemical to escape into the air and be captured by charcoal filters. Using the same pump-and-treat method to remove the "source" of the plume of contamination--heavy PERC concentrations in soil and groundwater beneath the Alsco property--would cost about $2.45 million state officials say.

State officials say cleanup must start soon to protect the public's health. They estimate that, from the Alsco property, a subterranean plume of the polluted groundwater snakes westward for two miles. The Alsco plume mixes with a larger plume of industrial contaminants that flows to the west and threatens the City of Tolleson's drinking-water supply.

Alsco disagrees on the public health threat, and has given DEQ scientific information and anecdotal evidence that it says prove Maroney's contaminated the property. Although the data have since been seriously questioned by the state, Charlotte Walton can't afford to pay for an expensive investigation to refute Alsco's data. She has no environmental liability insurance to pay for such studies.

But DEQ records indicate that her adversary, Alsco, has received $1.9 million (more than twice the current net worth of Maroney's) in insurance settlements to deal with problems related to the West Buchanan Street site and a second contaminated property in Washington state. The records do not say how much of that $1.9 million has been spent on the Phoenix site.

Alsco gave DEQ sworn statements from current and former employees of Alsco. Some employees said they had worked at the West Buchanan Street plant when it was being transferred from Maroney's to Alsco. They recalled that Alsco was careful when handling PERC, and blamed Maroney's for polluting the environment. One plumber even recalled that Maroney's employees poured a substance that he believed to be PERC into a hole dug in the property--an allegation Maroney's adamantly denies.

Alsco scientists also gave the state soil-study tests that seemed to implicate Maroney's as the polluter. But DEQ later determined that some of the data were "unreliable." (The testing lab that Alsco had hired was Westech, which is now fighting to keep its state license in the wake of accusations that it falsified test results that minimized unhealthful pollution levels in Scottsdale's drinking water.)

Charlotte Walton, who had only set foot on the West Buchanan Street site once in her life, responded by giving DEQ another set of sworn statements from former and current Maroney's employees that contradicted those of the Alsco employees. The Maroney's workers said their company handled PERC responsibly and did not substantially pollute the environment.

Unable to figure out who was telling the truth, the state continued sleuthing.

Clues in the public record made state officials wonder whether Alsco was the good environmental citizen it claimed to be. In the course of its investigation of Alsco, the state discovered that in 1992 Alsco had been fined $21,490 for, among other things, being in "significant noncompliance" of city waste-water laws for discharging waste water that exceeded pollution standards.

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Terry Greene Sterling