Longform

The Pain of Maryvale

Page 5 of 6

"I have a little angel no one can take from me," she says.
"I want to see him again. Maybe if I lead a good life, sometime I will."

In the late 1950s, farmland near the intersection of 35th Avenue and Osborn was converted to industrial use. It was an area prized by semiconductor manufacturers and aerospace firms. Dozens of companies--including large ones like Nucor, United Industrial and Corning Glass Works--at different times owned factories in the industrial zone, which thrived from the early 1950s to the 1980s. (Even today, a few factories still exist in the zone, although not nearly as many as during the area's heyday.)

Today, the area is called the West Central Phoenix Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund (WQARF), or state Superfund, site.

Recently, the state settled a lawsuit with two large companies suspected of being major groundwater polluters in an area of the West Central Phoenix Superfund site known as the West Osborn Complex. The area is located just a third of a mile northeast of two city wells found to be contaminated with TCE. And the area is "upgradient" of those wells, meaning that contaminants reaching groundwater in the West Osborn Complex would naturally have flowed toward the city wells.

The settlements the state reached were for small sums that won't begin to cover the cost of stopping the spread of the plume of groundwater contaminated with TCE, let alone repaying the costs of removing the solvent from groundwater.

The state agreed to these minimal payments even though there are documents in files of the state's environmental department showing that high-tech firms routinely dumped large amounts of TCE in the area.

A 1988 state Department of Environmental Quality report acknowledges that workers had complained to the agency about one company, Corning Glass Works, which owned a factory called Components Incorporated, which was located in the West Osborn Complex in the early 1970s.

A 1989 DEQ report says: "A record of anonymous complaints were found in the files of ADEQ [concerning the Corning Glass Works site]. Complaints refer to large vats of TCE located within and outside the buildings. The complaints indicated potential dumping of spent TCE . . ."

Corning Glass Works later said the charges were "empty" and provided "no evidence" that its factory "may have contributed to the discovered contamination . . ."

But a shop and maintenance manager for several companies from 1959 to 1972, including the Corning-owned plant, reported that "TCE was used in every building. People would use one-half buckets of TCE at their work area and throw it away when it got dirty. People threw TCE away all over the place like dirty water. Then the companies began using more and more TCE and the materials went down the ground to septic tanks. When the chemical resale value went up, companies recycled TCE."

The maintenance manager later changed parts of his story when contacted by lawyers for the companies he once worked for.

Last month, the Department of Environmental Quality estimated it will cost billions of dollars to clean Arizona groundwater. A very early estimate of the West Central Phoenix site suggested a $20 million cleanup cost, but that estimate is now considered to be low.

The settlements accepted by the state in regard to west-side pollution are tiny in comparison:

* In 1991, the Nuclear Corporation of America, also known as Nucor, which owned a company that from 1962 to 1965 operated an electronics plant in the West Osborn Complex, settled with the state for $1.275 million.

* This year, United Industrial Corporation, which owned an electronics plant at the complex from 1959 to 1962, agreed to pay cleanup costs that cannot exceed $4 million.

* Corning Glass Works, which owned an electronics plant in the complex from 1965 to 1971, agreed in July to the most laughable of the settlements--$750,000.

In announcing the Corning settlement, Russell Rhoades, the DEQ director appointed by Governor Fife Symington, said the Corning money would "provide a significant contribution toward the cost of cleanup."

And Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, whose lawyers represented DEQ, said the Corning settlement "demonstrates that the Attorney General's Office is committed to aggressively pursuing Superfund litigation."

Actually, the state was all but forced to agree to the small settlement with Corning because a lawyer in the Attorney General's Office had failed to properly prepare the case against Corning. When a new state lawyer was assigned to the case earlier this year, he asked for an extension of time to conduct further investigation and introduce new evidence.

A federal judge turned the state down, saying the state had already "had more than adequate time to build its case" and was simply "not diligent."

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Terry Greene Sterling