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WHO'S GONNA CLEAN THIS UP?

Every tenant leaves a mess. Sometimes it's a dirty oven. Sometimes it's a stain on the carpet. Sometimes it's forty tons of hazardous waste and tanks filled with 20,000 gallons of cyanide-laced water.

Every day, Don DeSanti parks his 1982 Toyota in the shadow of four imposing black tanks. He walks past the yawning gap in the wall of the Tempe industrial property he owns and into the office where, for fourteen months, he has presided over what used to be the building that housed Circuit Technology Incorporated.

And while DeSanti's property sits fire-gutted and vacant with a still unknown level of toxic contamination, his former tenant, Circuit Technology president Richard Weinraub, is parking his Cadillac Biarritz at a newer, better-equipped and much larger building in Phoenix.

Circuit Tech took its $1.5 million insurance settlement and moved out of Tempe within six weeks of the March 20, 1990, fire, but it has yet to finish cleaning up the mess it left behind.

The Tempe Fire Department still has not declared an official cause for the fire. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has done little more than write letters, but a DEQ official now admits an actual cleanup order might have been a good idea.

Weinraub and a Circuit Tech supervisor have pleaded no contest to endangerment charges for not telling firefighters about cyanide stored in the building. But the City of Tempe, where police proudly pointed to the charges as part of a new crackdown on environmental crime, failed to write a cleanup deadline into the plea agreement. The company is still operating at its new Phoenix location, but it has filed for Chapter 11 protection in Bankruptcy Court, tying the hands of the state and anyone else seeking funds for cleanup.

A full battery of tests on the site near Hayden Road and Salt riverbottom hasn't been conducted, so no one knows whether or how much cyanide or other chemicals have seeped into the soil of Tempe.

RICHARD WEINRAUB does not like being called a "corporate dumper." In a telephone interview (with his lawyer listening in), Weinraub talks of Circuit Tech as a company concerned about the environment, a company battling government red tape in a courageous effort to fix the mess. He sees Tempe officials as the aggressors.

"Rich is really an innocent victim of events, and he's battling the bureaucracy," says his lawyer, Jeffrey Ross.

Among the assets listed in Circuit Tech's bankruptcy case is the possibility of filing a claim against Tempe for "libel, malicious prosecution and abuse of process." City records show that no claim has been filed.

"I think they're picking on the wrong guy--we didn't ask for this fire," Weinraub said last August.

But the city warned Circuit Tech of possible fire hazards a month before the blaze.

Fire Inspector Russ Wollam advised installing sprinklers, saying a fire was likely in a dipping tank (used for plating circuit boards). But Weinraub acknowledges that he balked at the costs, which ranged from $30,000 to $50,000. That was too much to spend on a building the company did not own and was thinking of leaving anyway, he says.

The fire began about 4:45 a.m. on March 20, 1990. One of the three workers on duty, Trun Min Pham, switched on the heater in a dipping tank. Nobody told Min Pham that the tank had been drained the day before. The overheated tank is thought to have caused the fire.

The workers got out safely, but by the time the first firefighters arrived, the flames were already through the roof, setting adrift a foul-smelling cloud of smoke.

Tempe firefighters poured water on the fire--despite placards warning of water-reactant chemicals. Wollam explains that there was not enough foam available to effectively fight the fire. The green-tinted water ran down the street, pooling in a nearby intersection.

A half hour after the firefighters began dousing the flames, Circuit Tech engineering supervisor Curtis Daily arrived on the scene. Soon after, Weinraub pulled up. Both men were asked if cyanide was in use, according to the police reports. Both men said no. According to a list Daily had provided to the fire department three months before, no cyanide was present. Investigators later found two tanks containing a total of 65 gallons of cyanide.

The pools of greenish water left by the firefighters were pumped into four large tanks and stored in the parking lot. A mass of twisted metal and other debris littered the gutted southern half of the building.

Weinraub first talked about rebuilding, but within a week, he was pursuing a deal to buy an ailing circuit board factory in Phoenix.

Six weeks after the fire, Weinraub had closed the deal. The company would absorb the Phoenix firm, Custom Circuits, and move into its building at 5815 South 25th Street. As with the Tempe site, Weinraub would lease.

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Richard Polito