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Toxic Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind

There's no question that Phoenix sewage plants are dumping toxic materials into the Salt River, at least on occasion.

But city officials don't want to spend the money to install the equipment for a problem they contend occurs only rarely. Instead, they'd rather spend tax dollars in court to fight the state agency ordering the cleanup.

The state Department of Environmental Quality will publish a list within the next week of sewage-treatment plants that release toxic wastes into streams, rivers and lakes. Sources within DEQ say they expect the city's 23rd Avenue and 91st Avenue plants to make that list.

It isn't making the list itself that is causing city officials heartburn. It's the fact that the federal Environmental Protection Agency can then use that list to require the city to install expensive equipment to ensure that these toxic materials are removed during the treatment process and don't wind up in the river.

The city pleads sort-of guilty to the charge, but with an explanation and a request for a suspended sentence.

Assistant City Attorney Craig Reece says the city has been doing its own tests for years of what is coming out of the two sewage plants. "Occasionally, certain toxic pollutants showed up at levels that caused DEQ some concern," he admits. "We found some things we were surprised to see there."

Such as? Well, there's been mercury and thallium, both metals considered to be highly toxic in many forms. And there have been a variety of pesticides. But Reece sees no reason for DEQ or EPA to force action by the city.

"The problems are transient," he explains, showing up from time to time as the city takes "grab" samples to monitor what is coming out of the plants. Readings of mercury showed up six times over the last three years from the 23rd Avenue treatment plant and three times from the 91st Avenue plant.

"They're probably from teeth fillings," Reece says, "which are chemically inert." But Reece acknowledges that the tests the city runs show only the presence of some form of mercury compound but does not specify which one--or whether it is benign or dangerous.

The thallium? Reece doesn't know where that comes from but only that it showed up three times at one of the plants.

The same thing holds true for the pesticides, Reece says, showing up only on rare occasions. And some of these are pesticides that were recently banned, like heptachlor. "I suspect we won't ever see that again," he guesses.

Reece's logic rings hollow to Steve Pawlowski, an administrative service officer for DEQ who is handling the hearings on the list. He acknowledges that his agency relies on the city's random sampling to determine what comes out of the plants rather than having the state do its own monitoring. But he says that doesn't make the results invalid. "It's somewhat disingenuous now to impeach their own monitoring results," he says. "They've been using those types of monitoring results as the basis for reporting under their discharge permits for years. It's somewhat odd to now attack the use of grab samples."

Dave Baron, attorney for Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, also has no sympathy for the city's arguments.

"The reason they've only found these things a few times is they only sample for it very rarely," he says. "You know the old saying: If you hear no evil and see no evil, then there is no evil. That's the city's attitude."

Baron agrees with Reece on one point: The problem is being caused by industries illegally dumping toxic materials into the city sewer system. But Baron contends that happens because the city's monitoring of industry is little more than a joke. He says more can be done to find out who is doing the dumping. And it isn't as hard as the city would make it sound. "Most of these toxics can come from only certain sources," he says. "The average homeowner does not dump thallium down the drain."

What really galls Baron is the attitude of the city council. When informed of what DEQ was likely to do, the council did not order a cleanup. Instead the council voted to authorize the city attorney to file suit to block the state agency from including the city's two sewage plants on the list.

"If they were taking vigorous enforcement actions against those dumpers and really going out there and trying to find violations, they wouldn't be having these kind of problems," Baron says. "The fact is, people know the city's industrial wastewater department is a paper tiger and they can pretty much dump with impunity."

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Howard Fischer