Longform

Taken to the Cleaners

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Also in 1992, Alsco reported to the federal government a substantial PERC spill that had occurred in 1979, shortly after it acquired the facility from Maroney's.

After numerous settlement talks, including several mediation sessions before a federal judge, Alsco and the state signed a settlement agreement in April 1995, public records show. The exact details of the settlement agreement were not made public.

But state documents say Alsco, after signing the agreement, wouldn't close the deal.

Through Russell Bowers, Alsco was working on a far different course of action: It seemed likely that Bowers would convince the Legislature to modify the state Superfund law. The modifications would make it easier for a company to negotiate an absurdly low settlement with the state. Such settlements, in legal jargon, are called "de-minimis" settlements.

The politicking heated up after the settlement talks ended.
Three months after the last settlement talks, on August 30, 1995, the Maryatts, Vieregg and their consultant donated to Bowers' campaign.

That November, just two months later, Dave Maryatt wrote DEQ director Russell Rhoades "at the request of Representative Bowers" to plead Alsco's case.

A few days later, on November 28, 1995, Rhoades wrote to Bowers to explain why he couldn't let Alsco off the hook. He said some of the Alsco data were unreliable, in part because Westech Labs "greatly underestimates" levels of PERC in the soil.

One day later, on November 29, Vieregg thanked Bowers for his assistance, writing: "On behalf of Dave Maryatt, I want to thank you for your interest and decisive action in attempting to achieve a settlement between ADEQ and Alsco. . . . Dave Maryatt would be more than pleased to meet with you, Governor Symington and Director Rhoades to bring this longstanding dispute to a successful resolution and one that achieves a 'win-win' result for the State of Arizona and Alsco."

Bowers was furious when DEQ refused to settle with Alsco. In a nearly incomprehensible January 1996 letter to Rhoades that was copied to Symington, Bowers blasted Maroney's for "abysmal" handling of chemicals, and said it was a "travesty" for the state to go after Maryatt.

Bowers wrote: "Government may not have to worry through hundreds of nights about what is going to happen to one's life's work, but people do! [Emphasis his.] Here those who show responsibility relative to the implementation of 'clean' work practices are still held hostage to rumor, treated with disrespect and used as fodder in the gamble for larger settlements which, I feel, will be no more secure from court challenge than what we fear with Alsco, a never ending cycle of accusation, response and non-resolution, pending other litigation in the future--the very heart of the cancer that Superfund has become nationwide. The never ending limbo into which we put people is abhorrent." By then, under Bowers' leadership, the Superfund law had been changed to make it easier for companies to force the state to accept "de-minimis" settlements.

On July 10, 1996, legislators friendly to Alsco heard that the state might sue Alsco for cleanup expenses before the new law preventing such lawsuits took effect on July 24.

This time, Bowers and state senators Tom Patterson and Stan Barnes interceded, writing to Rhoades, "It would seem an incredible, and a bald-faced act of bad faith that in spite of the Legislature's actions giving new direction and hopefully fair resolutions to Arizona's aquifer pollution problems, you would file a CERCLA [Superfund] lawsuit against Alsco before the . . . deadline so you can slip under the legal wire."

DEQ backed off, and on the day the new law took effect, July 24, 1996, Alsco asked to settle with DEQ under the new, less restrictive, law for $750,000. Alsco claimed it had already spent $250,000 on the problem, bringing its total settlement offer to $1 million--less than one tenth of the anticipated cleanup expense.

(Maroney's also formally requested a small settlement, but did not name a settlement figure. That request was denied.)

Rhoades wouldn't relent to Alsco. In October, he wrote to Maryatt, noting that Alsco had probably used 42 tons of PERC at the site, which means that "Alsco could be responsible for all of the contamination measured at the site by losing less than two fluid ounces of PERC per day, even if Maroney's released nothing."

"The stakes here are high," Rhoades said. "The risk to the environment is high because carcinogenic PERC and other carcinogens are loose in the groundwater moving off towards public wells."

Rhoades also noted that Maroney's would be "unduly prejudiced" if Alsco were to pay only $1 million of the $10.5 million cleanup tab. "The state would be at risk . . . in the event Maroney's estimated net worth of approximately $1 million did not cover 96 percent of the remedy."

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Terry Greene Sterling