Longform

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

So the state started freeway construction in the middle of a former chemical plant without first checking to see what might lie beneath the surface of the ground. This is a remarkable oversight given the state's own records which documented the 22-year presence of Olin Mathieson on the site.

This negligence is underscored by the large painted eagle on the Gabrielli building with the word Mathieson" attached. The environmental experts assessing the land failed to recognize the logo of one of the world's largest chemical companies.

It's likely that had we not been so driven by construction schedules, none of this stuff would have happened," Sullivan says. If we'd done a Phase II audit and found this sump, we would have backed way off."

And a Phase II investigation should have been ordered. Several local and national environmental experts agreed that an essential part of a Phase I audit is a title search. Apparently, in this case, the environmental engineers who conducted the audit never examined the chain of possession of the property, or relied on a cursory document that only traced possession of the land back five years. Such a document would not have reflected Olin Mathieson's ownership of the parcel from 1950 until 1972.

Though there is no statutory requirement that a Phase I assessment include an examination of chain-of-title documents, a title search is standard operating procedure in the industry. One local consultant, who asked not to be identified because his firm regularly deals with ADOT, said that while many aspects of a Phase I survey are based on experience and opinion, any competent report would include an inspection of chain-of-title documents for at least the past 50 years. Similarly, guidelines established by the American Society for Testing and Materials require a Ôqualified inspector" to conduct a 50-year survey of property uses by deed search, interviews and aerial photographs." The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and the Consulting Engineers Council of Metropolitan Washington both suggest 50 years as a reasonable period for historic review.

If such a title search had been conducted, the presence of Olin Mathieson on the deed would have almost certainly alerted the consultants to the need to conduct a more intensive survey. It is unlikely the pesticide-laden sump could have escaped detection had the state gone to Phase II and taken core samples, especially since the toxic sump lay precisely in the path of the expressway.

Bruce Scott, of Scott, Allard and Bohannan, Inc., the environmental consulting firm that contracted with the state for both the initial environmental audit and the more intensive post-spill investigation, refused to answer questions. Scott referred all inquiries about the Gabrielli property to ADOT's Sullivan.

Sullivan admits mistakes were made. He has no explanation for why the environmental engineers apparently relied on a truncated title search. Sullivan explains that the consultants only researched ownership back five years and theorizes that frenzied freeway building and intense pressure to meet construction schedules led to oversights. But he says there was nothing diabolical in the state's machinations. Sullivan says when the Phase I audit was conducted, the clues to the chemical company's occupation of the site were either overlooked or ignored.

In defense of the consultant, Sullivan says that when the audit was conducted, the lot was heaped with trash to be recycled, with piles of paper and barrels of glass. Aside from the portable building Gabrielli used as an office, the buildings were in disrepair. It looked like what it was-a place where people dumped garbage. And it had been 16 years since the chemical company had done business on the site. Still, Sullivan agrees the big eagle should have tipped off ADOT.

Somebody should have caught that," Sullivan says. In a Monday-morning- quarterbacking sense, we look real dumb."

GENE GABRIELLI knows his garbage; he is, after all, in the resource-recovery business. He says he can look at a garbage can and, given certain demographic clues about its owner, list its contents with about 90 percent confidence. When he talks about recycling, about resource recovery," he becomes almost messianic, lifting his eyes and steepling his hands, unconsciously assuming the posture of the reflective minister.

He is not making a joke when he says he has trash in his blood. For him, there is something noble in scavenging worth from refuse, and he tends to describe his business as a grand, humanitarian crusade. While he admits his battles with ADOT have left him a bit shell-shocked and loopy, he talks about resource recovery with the matter-of-fact precision of an expert.

It's what he does, what his father did. Before ADOT condemned his land, he made a good living from it.

When I first started in this business, we were doing nothing but newspapers, no magazines, no computer paper or anything," he says. And we were getting about $10 a ton for it. And we were paying $5 or $6-boy, I was so stupid. Eventually it got up to $45 a ton, but we're not going to see those days again. Not for a long time. During World War II, they used to get $20 a ton for all this stuff, and here I was in 1973 I was getting $10."

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Philip Martin