Unclean Getaway

Maricopa County continued pumping cancer-causing toxins into the ground for four years after the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality warned it to stop. The county Board of Supervisors and top administrators were aware that an oil/water separator at a fuel-storage site discharged--probably illegally--pollutants into a dry well on the property, internal county documents and a former county official reveal.

Those contaminants may have contributed to a massive plume of fouled groundwater which now threatens future drinking-water supplies.

But Maricopa County probably won't ever be held accountable.
The county never told the state it was continuing to dump. Instead, it claims that the problem was solely caused years earlier by other operators at the site, which for decades was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad.

And ADEQ has bought it. The county was released from its liability for the White Mountain Fuel Storage site last year by ADEQ after it submitted a report which claimed that it wasn't responsible for any contamination--without mentioning the years of dumping.

That's nothing new for the county and ADEQ.
For years, ADEQ has allowed Maricopa County to stall, stonewall and haggle over cleaning up after itself in the West Van Buren area, a 35-square-mile patch of state-designated environmental problems that stretches from Seventh Avenue to 83rd Avenue.

At a county materials management facility in the same area, the county already has spent more than $200,000 of taxpayer money on legal bills and public relations costs to convince the state it's not responsible for the mess there. Meanwhile, Southern Pacific already has forked over nearly $300,000 to the county to help cover costs, none of which has gone toward actual cleanup.

At stake for the county is potentially millions of dollars in cleanup costs. The law requires polluters to pay their share of cleaning up contaminated sites.

For the county, the expensive question of responsibility involves who contributed to a giant plume of contaminated groundwater that is flowing under South Phoenix. Hazardous chemicals--such as solvents and petroleum products linked to cancer and other illnesses--have been detected above legal limits. The drinking water of the city of Tolleson is at risk because of the spills, and the contaminated groundwater is already used in agricultural canals. More important, the polluted underground water supply is expected to be needed as drinking water for the city of Phoenix in the future.

No one from the county or state will talk about the county's involvement in the West Van Buren area. ADEQ staffers have been instructed not to speak to the press. Pieces of ADEQ's files on the matter are missing. County staffers have locked down public records, saying the matter is "in negotiation." Both the county and state offer assurances that they're taking all the appropriate measures.

But those measures don't yet include dealing with the contamination. Even though the county often forces businesses and citizens to follow environmental rules and regulations, Maricopa County still hasn't started cleaning up after itself.

Last year, Maricopa County quit using the White Mountain Fuel Storage Facility. But contaminants linger under the site--and so do the questions about what the county did to contribute to the pollution.

In 1982, Maricopa County leased the property at 5146 West Monroe from Southern Pacific for use as a fuel storage facility. An oil/water separator on the site was used to dispose of contaminated water by pumping it into a dry well.

In 1989, ADEQ told the county to quit. "Some sort of preventative measures [should] be undertaken to avoid such an event (i.e., subsurface contamination from a dry well) in the future," ADEQ wrote the county, according to a chronology prepared by county staff.

Other companies that also stored fuel in the area disconnected their dry wells when asked by ADEQ, the chronology notes. But for four years after that warning from ADEQ, the county continued dumping contaminated water into the dry well.

Maricopa County's former environmental liabilities manager Roland Bergen told the county's Board of Supervisors of the problems at the site in an executive session on November 16, 1993. On March 23, 1994, Bergen wrote a memo about what had been going on at the site.

"We raised concerns about potential liability of the Board of Supervisors and management due to on-going disposal of BTEX (i.e. benzene, toluene, total xylenes) contaminated water from an on-site oil/water separator connected to a dry well at the facility since its construction in the early 1980s," Bergen wrote.

"Our research of the record indicates that on 22 March 1989 Maricopa County was advised by ADEQ to adopt 'some sort of preventative measures . . . to avoid' contamination of the groundwater from our oil/water separator."

But the county ignored ADEQ's request.
"Rather than act immediately on this information, Maricopa County continued to dispose of BTEX contaminated water in the on-site dry well until the mid part of November," Bergen wrote. "This appears to be a violation of ARS 13-1603 (Criminal littering or polluting)."

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Chris Farnsworth