The two-lane asphalt road stretches southward across the desert, eerily blending at the horizon with three steam plumes that surge 2,000 feet above the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
Four miles ahead lies the nation's largest nuclear power plant; during the past two months, more than 800 migratory ducks have mysteriously drowned in the plant's 500-acre evaporative-pond complex. The ponds receive water used to cool the plant's three nuclear reactors.
The lightly traveled road passes a couple of handpainted "land for sale" signs and a cheery billboard advertising a mobile-home park. The plant's entrance leads to the Energy Information Center, where Palo Verde officials are discussing how to handle New Times' visit to the ponds.
"Are you going with us?" environmental consultant Thomas Hillmer asks Palo Verde spokesman Mark Fallon.
"No, I've got a lot of work to do today," Fallon says with a grin as he turns over a reporter and photographer to Hillmer.
Hillmer's disgust over his unexpected public relations assignment--he's colloquially known as the plant's "dead duck counter"--appears to be exceeded only by Fallon's delight in shedding it. (Perhaps Fallon wants to avoid a replay of the dark comedy that ensued last summer, when New Times last called for his expertise. That encounter ended with Palo Verde brass ordering Fallon to retrieve thousands of pages of classified nuclear documents outlining shoddy operations at the plant that had carelessly been dumped in a workers' dormitory, only to end up in the offices of New Times.)
Fallon says goodbye and heads back to his office, tucked away somewhere in the sprawling complex 50 miles west of Phoenix.
Hillmer heads for the door, mumbling about being called in on his day off to answer questions about dead ducks. But he soon takes a liking to public relations.
"This is the first year we have ever had anything like this," Hillmer says while standing on the embankment overlooking one of the two 11-year-old evaporative ponds. For some reason, the thousands of ducks that land at the site prefer one pond over the other, even though something is killing them.
"So far we haven't been able to identify anything that we can do," says the lanky Hillmer.
One benefit of the duck deaths has been extra outdoor activities for Hillmer. He routinely patrols the ponds in a boat and so far has plucked 828 departed ducks out of the water.
"It can be kind of serene out there," he says of his thrice-weekly dead-duck roundup. Nearly all the victims have been either Northern shovelers or ruddy ducks, he says.
Most of the ducks died on two occasions. More than 300 ducks were found dead on November 30; another 300 died at the beginning of January. Otherwise, the death count varies each day from zero to about ten, Hillmer says.
Whatever is killing the ducks remains a mystery. Chemical and radiation analyses of the water and bird carcasses have not identified a cause of death, although they show the pond has a high salinity level, comparable to ocean water.
Biological tests of some of the dead birds at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin, have also proved inconclusive. "We've done a number and variety of testing on the birds, and to date, we don't have a cause of death," says Linda Glaser, a wildlife disease specialist at the center.
Glaser suspects the culprit might be the ducks' food source, which apparently is brine shrimp that thrive in the salty water. The shrimp might be concentrating some unknown toxin that is then absorbed by the ducks, she speculates. But until further tests are done at the site, it will be difficult to come to any conclusion, she says.
Whether Palo Verde will do additional tests is uncertain, Hillmer says. That decision won't be made until after state and federal wildlife officials meet to review Glaser's reports.
"We certainly want to find out whatever it is and fix it," Hillmer says, comfortably assuming the upbeat spin of a seasoned public relations executive.
The morning tour of the ponds winds to an end as two redtail hawks swoop across the water's surface looking for easy pickings. Hillmer, relieved to be done with his official duties, begins to loosen up a bit during the short drive back to the power plant.
Smiling contentedly beneath the brim of his Inside Edition baseball cap, Hillmer asks, "Is that it? I got to report back to Fallon with everything you guys asked and everything I told you."
"Yeah, that's it."
Hillmer looks relieved.
"I thought they wanted to send someone out there with you that was expendable," he says, gesturing with a finger slash across his throat.