The Pain of Maryvale

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"What we are after is justice."

Fourteen years ago, a nun who was the principal of a west-side Catholic school reported to the Arizona Department of Health Services that there appeared to be a high incidence of cancer, mostly leukemia, among children in Maryvale.

The health department looked at county statistics and confirmed a higher-than-expected rate of childhood-leukemia deaths in the area. But it refused to conduct a thorough epidemiological investigation of the problem. Health officials told Sister Joyce Weller that such studies were too expensive and almost never conclusively proved a cause for elevated leukemia death rates. The agency also suggested the nun not talk publicly about the "cancer cluster" so as not to panic the parents of her charges at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic elementary school.

School officials also were worried about publicity, but for a different reason. They feared public discussion of the leukemia problem would lead to declining enrollment at the school and, perhaps, open it up to lawsuits.

After three years of requesting assistance from the health department and failing to get meaningful answers, the nun finally gave up. She was transferred out of state in 1987.

Sister Joyce had strongly suspected that pollution might have caused some of the leukemia in Maryvale, which abutted several industrial areas. There was evidence to support such suspicions. In 1982, shortly before the nun first approached the health department, the city of Phoenix permanently closed two Maryvale drinking-water wells that were estimated to have served "well over 10,000 people."

The wells had been found to contain unhealthful levels of trichloroethylene. State records reveal the industrial degreaser and suspected carcinogen, commonly known as TCE, had been dumped into the ground by several high-tech plants located just one third of a mile northeast of the wells. Those records also show that underground water under those plants flows to the southwest--or toward the public supply wells.

New Times revealed the health department's failure to act on the Maryvale cancer cluster in an investigative report in 1987.

Maryvale residents were outraged. In public meetings, state officials promised Maryvale residents that credible health studies would be conducted by DHS--and overseen by the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Also, state officials promised, polluters would be forced to pay for environmental contamination.

At first, officials scrambled to find answers.
That same year, 1987, a "West Central Phoenix" state Superfund site was designated.

State environmental experts ran tests and asserted that the Maryvale environment was free from any environmental pollutant that might make kids sick. They said there was no problem with pesticides in the soils, no dangerous amounts of radiation, no contaminated drinking-water supply.

Then in 1989, two more Maryvale drinking-water wells were closed because of TCE contamination.

With oversight from a panel of out-of-state scientists appointed by CDC, the state conducted two additional statistical studies; it reconfirmed a higher-than-average rate of childhood leukemia from 1965 to 1986 on Phoenix's west side. Because of these statistical confirmations, in 1989 DHS promised it would conduct a "case control" study entailing lengthy interviews with "case" families of leukemia victims and "control" families of healthy children to determine what environmental influences might be associated with at least some of the leukemias. That study was originally to have been completed in 1991.

But as public interest waned, the state of Arizona reneged on its promises to the people of Maryvale. State inaction has not only prolonged the anguish of parents of leukemia victims; it has also protected the city of Phoenix from lawsuits and allowed suspected polluters to avoid paying expensive cleanup costs.

Public records recently obtained by New Times reveal that the state's reaction to the Maryvale problem has been indisputably slow and ineffective:

* The state's "case control" study is five years behind schedule.
* That study does not allow for a sophisticated inquiry into the possibility that drinking water might be linked to at least some of the leukemias. Ignoring contaminated drinking water as a potential cause of the cancer cluster helps protect the city of Phoenix and industries that polluted the water from liability.

* There has been no significant cleanup of the West Central Phoenix Superfund site.

* The state has allowed several suspected polluters to settle lawsuits without admitting liability--and for astonishingly low sums that won't begin to cover the multimillion-dollar cost of cleaning up groundwater on the west side. These settlements have been accepted despite eyewitness reports by factory workers that industries dumped TCE in the Superfund site.

Cathy's Story
Joe Guzman can't remember exactly when the stranger rang the front doorbell of his home, but it was at least 24 years ago, before Cathy died.

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Terry Greene Sterling