Families Against Cancer & Toxics
Stop cancer before it starts
Phoenix New Times (Arizona)
February 22, 1989
AN INSIDE LOOK AT HOW MARYVALE---AND THE STATE OF ARIZONA---ARE DEALING WITH AN UNKNOWN KILLER
The 800 people who stormed into the Maryvale High School auditorium one June night in 1987 were outraged and insulted. They had just learned from this newspaper that for more than a decade, a suspiciously high number of children in their working-class part of town had died of cancer.
Although that frightening information was news to them, it was old stuff at the state health department: It had long been aware of the bizarre cluster of childhood- leukemia deaths on the west side, but for five long years, had repeatedly refused to launch any meaningful investigation.
The anxious audience shouted angry questions at state officials and the doctors who had come to calm them--to tell them there was probably nothing wrong.
Why had the health department they trusted turned its back on their dying children? Why hadn't officials told them of the hidden pollutants lurking in their environment, poisons they thought might be murdering their young? Why did it take newspaper articles to get officials to face the community?
The stories had revealed that for several frustrating years, the principal of Maryvale's St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Elementary School had pleaded with the health department to investigate why twelve of her students contracted cancer from 1965 to 1985. She counted another sixteen kids who got cancer in neighboring public schools. Most of the cancers were leukemia.
The health department itself then determined--using hastily assembled data-- that from 1970 to 1981, the west side had a high rate of childhood-leukemia deaths. But after giving St. Vincent's a quick once-over for carcinogens, officials mollified the nun by saying there was nothing wrong. They explained the high death rate was probably just a statistical glitch, a random gathering of numbers that was regrettable but no cause for alarm.
That explanation sounded irresponsible to the parents gathered in the high school that summer night. Already they knew that two of Maryvale's drinking- water wells had been closed in 1982 because they were polluted with suspected carcinogens. Was this water the cause? Was the dirty air the problem? What about all the industry in the neighborhood? Is that where the cancer was coming from? They demanded health studies to see if their polluted environment was the killer. They also demanded immediate cleanup of the area's fouled groundwater.
Government officials promised to do both.
A YEAR AND A HALF LATER, most of those 800 people seem to have lost their rage. In fact, they seem to have lost their interest altogether. The community's collective ennui was evident a few months ago when the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) wanted family members of cancer victims to provide information about their relatives. All they had to do was fill out forms that could be clipped out of newspapers.
Only three people bothered to send in the forms.
That same lethargy was obvious last month when only about thirty people showed up at a public meeting in a Maryvale hotel. A panel of scientists from across the country had gathered to explain the progress of the leukemia studies. And staffers from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were there to explain the progress of the monitoring and cleanup of Maryvale's polluted environment. If more people had bothered to show up that night, they would have learned that Maryvale's problems are far from over:
* The childhood-leukemia death rate in Maryvale is much worse than anyone suspected. For sixteen years, from 1970 to 1986, west-side kids died of leukemia at twice the expected national rate. Because the high rate has dragged on so long-- because it didn't stop, as a glitch would have--most scientists are now saying the deaths are a true cluster. Until very recently, the daily newspapers and local television stations erroneously reported that the high death rate stopped in 1981. That's because the health department report buried the statistics in jargon, and a scientist who acts as a west- side spokesman did not make the information clear to the press.
* The environmental quality department has drawn criticism from industry and citizens alike for botching Maryvale's cleanup and environmental monitoring. So far, the department has failed to finger industrial polluters to clean up contaminated groundwater; has failed to force hundreds of potential polluters to fill out forms sent out more than a year ago; has not conducted soil sampling for pesticides it promised Maryvale residents a year ago.
* The health department's ongoing leukemia studies are slogging along at a frustratingly slow pace. A staff of ten sometimes spends as much as 400 hours a week gathering information, but the agency lacks such crucial help as an epidemiologist--an expert who determines what causes outbreaks of disease. The state's efforts to hire an epidemiologist were thwarted for months by an official with the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a state legislator charges. However, Tim Flood, the health department doctor who is directing the studies, is getting high marks from fellow scientists and most of the public.
* Some citizens are concerned the studies are too limited. They want the health department to look into other, less dramatic health effects that might be caused by pollutants in the environment, but have been unsuccessful in broadening the studies.
* The answers to what might be causing the leukemia cluster are as far away as 1991. First, years are spent gathering tens of thousands of statistics from death certificates and hospital records. Then, to seek a cause--is it environmental pollution, an unknown virus or quirky genetics--the doctors have to interview the families of leukemia victims and compare their lifestyles to those of healthy families living in another part of town. It's a lot like blindly trying to assemble a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle when there's no picture on the box to guide you.
* There is some good news in all this confusion: Never again will the health department be able to turn its back on citizens reporting a cancer cluster. A state law passed in 1988 guarantees funding each year for the health department's statewide computer data banks. The computers will quickly spot unusual clusters of birth defects and cancers, forcing doctors to respond.
THE DEATH COUNT
Back in the summer of 1987, the vocal crowd at Maryvale High School heard the doctors say there was no reason to panic.
One local doctor, Paul Baranko, even stood up that night and charged that the "information given in the news media" was "really not true." In the past four years, he claimed, there was no increased rate of leukemia among Maryvale kids.
But the New Times stories prompted elected leaders to demand more than best guesses and consoling words. Buckling to pressures from Arizona's U.S. senators and state legislators, health department staffers promised to undertake an immediate "countywide" study of cancer deaths. And the CDC, which was feeling that same political pressure, offered to pay a panel of " peer reviewers"--expert scientists from across the country who would fly into Phoenix periodically to look over the health department's shoulder as it conducted the studies.
"We want to see if there is a leukemia problem here. I know there is a perceived one, but we want to see if there really is one," Charles Helmick, a federal doctor, explained at the Maryvale High meeting.
Real estate salesmen and west-side politicians were hoping the studies would not only quell the fears but prove there never was a cancer cluster in Maryvale. Some west-side lawmakers said there was no reason to point a finger at their side of townMDRV, that Maryvale was only "the tip of the iceberg." Lots of other clusters would surely surface throughout the Valley once the research was completed, they said.
In May 1988, the health department came out with a tally of cancer deaths in the Valley. The "Mortality Study" revealed that the "leukemia problem" in Maryvale was much worse than originally reported. West-side kids from newborns to nineteen years of age died of leukemia at twice the expected national rate during the sixteen-year period from 1970 to 1986, the last year for which statistics are available. Thirty-five kids had died of leukemia; only sixteen would have been expected to die.
For months following the release of the death count, most daily newspapers and television stations erroneously reported that the Maryvale cluster only lasted from 1970 to 1981, leading people to believe that if it weren't a glitch, whatever problem had caused the cancers had gone away.
The truth that Maryvale had a continuing problem had been camouflaged in the state report.
In fact, out-of-town scientists were shocked to read how the death count was misreported in the daily press. "I read something in the Arizona Republic this morning, and I didn't even know they were discussing the same study," lamented a Harvard scientist. "I am frustrated that people will think we are trying to cover up something and that is not our intention. I don't blame the newspaper. Not enough effort was made to translate the data."
The translator had been Michael Lebowitz, a scientist who was appointed by former Governor Evan Mecham to act as spokesman for the west side. Some of the embarrassed scientists publicly warned Lebowitz to explain things more clearly in the future so there would be no appearance of a "whitewash."
Most of the state researchers now think the cluster is a "true cluster." It's the only one they've found in the Valley. That conclusion is diametrically opposed to the health department's long-standing reasoning that it would be silly to spend limited resources studying what most likely was a fluke.
"I was a bit surprised," admits Flood, "because the cluster did not disappear from 1981 to 1986. If it would have gone away, we could have explained it as a statistical artifact. But it's still there, and we need to explain it." Flood says he expects the scientists will discover that during those same sixteen years many more west-side kids actually contracted, but did not die of, the disease. In other words, the "incidence rate" of childhood leukemia on the west side will probably be as high or higher than the death count.
THE RISE AND FALL OF CITIZENS GROUPS
Not everyone in Maryvale has forgotten about the leukemia cluster. But most of the grassroots groups that grabbed the public's attention a year and a half ago either no longer exist or have become increasingly inactive.
What's more, the groups that are active now bicker and bark at each other during public meetings, or, worse yet, feed questions to the scientists that are intended to make an opposing group's concerns look inane. That's not the way it was in the summer of 1987. Maryvale folks put on a united front then. Following publication of the New Times stories, Rick Vickers, a Maryvale father whose son had attended St. Vincent de Paul School and had died of leukemia, organized a grassroots citizens group called MACC, or Maryvale Awareness of Cancer Committee. In those days, Vickers and Tony Lovett, who claimed he'd founded a grassroots Hispanic group called AGUA (Air and Groundwater Under Assault) were the voices of Maryvale.
But AGUA never really got off the ground. And Vickers, who had been extremely active, appears to have dropped his drive in the midst of a slew of tragic personal problems, including the recent, untimely death of his 42-year- old wife, Irma.
In fact, the only group birthed in the summer of 1987 that's still going strong is the West Valley Citizens Group--carefully titled to avoid the name Maryvale. This club is the brain child of developer John F. Long, who master planned and built Maryvale, naming it after his wife. Press reports estimate Long has conducted $1.5 billion worth of commerce in Maryvale. Given his emotional and financial ties, it isn't surprising that Long was reportedly furious about the New Times revelations, calling them hysterical.
Long had a good reason, his critics say, to downplay the cancer cluster: It might drive down real-estate values. In fact, he even told one reporter he'd heard rumors that the stories were made up by his enemies to steer industrial development away from Maryvale.
That's a surprising conclusion, given the fact that John F. Long admitted to New Times in 1987 that he'd been told about the leukemia problem by the Catholic principal in the early Eighties. Long said he was briefed by the health department and was relieved that the whole problem was in good hands. He didn't have to worry about the outbreak anymore, he said he was told.
But now he was worrying about it. Long turned to then-Governor Evan Mecham-- the man he'd supported for the job--asking him to appoint a citizens group that would have some say in the studies. Mecham helped Long organize the group and appointed Michael Lebowitz to be the west-side's "voice." Lebowitz, a University of Arizona scientist, attends numerous health department meetings, critiques the ongoing leukemia studies and reports back to the West Valley Citizens Group. His reports to the group are private because it closes its meetings to the public.
Environmentalists see Long's group as a west-side booster club that wants to downplay the leukemia problem. So they were immediately distrustful of Lebowitz. Much to their chagrin, however, Lebowitz is frequently interviewed by the press as the new voice of Maryvale.
In general, the West Valley Citizens Group has worked hard to quell panic among the citizenry of Maryvale. Regis Della-Calce, for instance, is a member who religiously follows the issues and reports them back to her friends and neighbors. She has publicly rebuked the environmentalists for implying that she and her group are pro-industry and want to play down Maryvale's problems.
Members of the group still include west-side businessmen and a smattering of citizens who represent MACC, a Hispanic group called LULAC (League of United Latin-American Citizens) and St. Vincent de Paul School.
Having a representative in the group is the extent to which the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and the school participate in the health studies. "We're not playing any direct part at all; it's out of our hands at this point," says Elizabeth Meegan, who directs education for the Phoenix diocese. Meegan says that these days, the school has a declining enrollment and is having financial problems. But she says, "It's difficult to determine" if enrollment was affected by the New Times stories.
The West Valley Citizens Group is not at all friendly with two brand-new grassroots groups.
Friends for Environmental Safety was recently started by a cancer victim named Shirley Marotta. In a dozen houses on her street, ten people have recently been diagnosed with cancer. Four have died. Marotta contends the cancers were caused by "a little TCE in our water, a little pesticide in our food. How much is too much? It's the environment that gave us cancer. The doctors know it and I know it, but they keep dancing around it."
Although the health department has been sympathetic to Marotta's plight, it says it can't study the problem because the cancers are too varied, and the neighbors too middle-aged, for doctors to track possible causes.
So Marotta attends every public meeting related to Maryvale to "keep hammering away" at officials so they'll clean up the environment. "Eventually, " she says, "the government will have to pay attention to what the people are saying. But right now they're still chasing us around in circles."
MOM, also known as Mothers of Maryvale, was started several months ago by 34-year-old Maryvale environmentalist Melody Baker and her friend, Teresa Johnson. The women stress that they're both just plain, ordinary housewives. They drive that image home by serving homemade chocolate-chip cookies at their press conferences.
But they are anything but mousy coffee klatchers. They publicly rail at the environmental quality department for its snaillike pace in cleaning up Maryvale groundwater. They regularly duke it out with bureaucrats like Ivan " Tiny" Shields, who directs the state Commission of Agriculture and Horticulture. Shields, says MOM, has been reluctant to hand over public information on the history of pesticide use in the Valley.
Of the two women, Johnson is more reserved. Last year, her seventeen- year- old daughter died of a congenital heart defect, the kind that's been linked to solvent-contaminated drinking water in Tucson.
"Reserved" is not a word anyone would use to describe Baker. She talks to bureaucrats as if she's a schoolteacher explaining instructions to a roomful of bored kids with Attention Deficit Disorder. And her favorite tactic is to embarrass environmental quality department staffers in front of TV cameras or during public meetings attended by the out-of-state scientists. At one recent meeting, she blasted DEQ ombudsman Paul Scheidig for his agency's failure to conduct promised studies of pesticide residues in the soil. Then she turned to the assembled panel of out-of-state scientists and hotly announced, "Let it be known that this is the last lick of work we're going to get out of these guys until you come back to Arizona."
Baker says she's becoming more effective because "I think I'm learning where to go, who to go to, when to get what I want. Maybe I'm learning how to make the process work for me. There have been many times I figured the agencies knew what it was I was after but wanted me to break a secret code.
"It's very frustrating, but I've learned so much I can't walk away from this."
She can't stop even though she admits sometimes her family suffers from the long hours she spends researching environmental issues. "My son's birthday was the other day," she says. "We didn't get out of the house till 8:30 at night to take him to dinner. My whole week was shot, all my time had gone to the environment."
Unlike more passive citizens, Baker has caused enough of a stink to leave a mark on the health studies. She convinced the scientists to hold public meetings in Maryvale although they had originally agreed to a demand from Long's group to meet in downtown Phoenix so as not to give Maryvale a bad name. And she successfully persuaded the scientists to force the health department to take into account an earlier study of birth defects in Pima and Maricopa Counties. The study revealed high rates of birth defects in a census tract in Maryvale, defects Baker thinks are tied to pollution. "I want to know what caused my son's birth defect, do you hear me?" she loudly remarked to a federal doctor.
Baker and Johnson have unsuccessfully campaigned to get other health effects--miscarriages, lupus, heart problems and cancers other than leukemia-- included in the state's studies. "It's all too narrow," laments Baker. "Are they trying to make these health effects from pollution go away? You know, if they don't look for them, they won't find 'em."
The childhood-leukemia death rate in Maryvale is much worse than anyone suspected.
Never again will the health department be able to turn its back on citizens reporting a cancer cluster.
The truth that Maryvale had a continuing problem had been camouflaged in the state report.
Environmentalists see John F. Long's group as a west- side booster club that wants to downplay the leukemia problem.
MDBOTHE SMALL DOCTOR WITH THE BIG JOB
Tim Flood is a small, ordinary-looking fellow with a soft, mild way of speaking. He doesn't look like the kind of guy you'd expect to shoulder the pressures that come with directing the Maryvale leukemia studies. "It's not been an easy eighteen months," he says. "When I get yelled at, I get very frustrated. I get angry too. It would be very easy for me to get drawn into a shouting match. People want these global health studies, and they just can't be done. The issues they raise, about pollution and health effects, could be happening. I'm concerned about it too. But right now the state of the art of exposure monitoring is just too difficult to measure. We just aren't advanced enough to deal with those kinds of concerns."
Tim Flood came to the health department in October 1986, long after the leukemia cluster had been shuffled into a corner by his superiors. He says he "understands the rage" of Baker and others. But he says he also understands how a financially strapped department might choose to spend limited resources elsewhere. (At one point, the department's request for funds from the legislature prioritized $128,500 for a new office over cancer-cluster research.)
Flood doesn't exhibit the bureaucratic callousness and condescending attitude that once marked the way his superiors treated the people of Maryvale. "I spent a lot of time early on talking to anyone who wanted to talk to me and I think it paid off. I've learned to listen to the concerns of the public more and to spend a lot more time trying to figure out what their questions mean," he says. "Early on I may not have been listening attentively enough to precisely what they were asking for. Their concerns are valid and need to be addressed." His attitude isn't lost on Baker, who says: "I'd rather work with Tim Flood than any of 'em, although he may be limited in what he can do to help us because of the chiefs he has to work for."
The mild-mannered M.D. has also managed to get the respect of the out- of- state scientists. Dr. Richard Jackson, a California epidemiologist who is Flood's peer reviewer, says: "I see an improvement in Tim Flood. He's becoming able and confident."
And Steve Lagakos, a Harvard biostatistician who is also Flood's peer reviewer, says: "Tim Flood means well and works very hard. The health department just needs five more people like him."
Flood says he "tries not to get too pessimistic" just because earlier studies haven't linked leukemia clusters to a cause. "If you don't look, you don't know. One of these days we're going to luck out and possibly identify a cause," he says. "As technology improves, we get closer to answers."
Environmentalists claim one possible cause for the children dying was TCE- laced public drinking water that flowed out of two Maryvale wells that were finally closed in 1982. Solvents such as TCE were linked to a childhood- leukemia cluster in Woburn, Massachusetts, by a team of Harvard scientists that included Lagakos.
Maryvale differs from Woburn, however, because no one knows exactly what homes received the bad water or how long the wells had been polluted before they were shut down.
Although many scientists have discounted the TCE link, Flood isn't ready to dismiss it as a possible problem. He's got the guts to stand up to more conservative health department doctors when he publicly admits there's a remote chance there may be a link between the water and the leukemias: "I haven't been able to discount that completely, although other scientists have. There is still a question about small amounts of TCE and a possible relationship with childhood leukemia. We will explore it."
THE LONG ROAD AHEAD
Exploring that tenuous relationship between polluted water and leukemia is still at least nine months away. That's because the leukemia studies are divided into three parts, and Flood and his team are only halfway through the second phase of the study. Answers about what may have caused the cluster are as far away as 1991.
The grisly death count, the "Mortality Study," was completed last May. The second phase, slated to be completed some time in the next nine months, is an "Incidence Study," a hunt through thousands of hospital records and lab reports to ferret out how many kids actually got the disease. And it will be another two to three years before the state will conclude the final stage: The "Case Control Study" that will try to determine causes for the blight of leukemia.
Through all this, the peer reviewers fly in and out of Phoenix, offering expert advice to Flood and his team. Although the feds pay for the peer reviewers' expenses, the state is paying for the rest of the studies.
According to state Representative Bobby Raymond--a Maryvale Democrat who's championed the health studies in the legislature--the state has so far contributed about $475,000 to the studies. Raymond expects the state will give Flood and his team another $700,000 in the next two years.
But Raymond is distressed that the studies are dragging on. So are his constituents, who still seem interested in Maryvale, and some scientists. The problem is a manpower shortage. For a year and a half, the state has been seeking an epidemiologist and biostatistician to help out with the studies. It was only last month that the state hired a biostatistician, while a willing epidemiologist has yet to be found.
"I'm at a loss for a solution," laments Harvard's Lagakos. "The people in the health department could move things quicker if they had a larger staff. I don't think they are just sitting there twiddling their thumbs, they are just totally understaffed."
Lagakos says he wrote U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini in May "expressing my concern that they need more talent" at the health department.
But he says he "never got a response" from the senator.
This is puzzling to David Steele, a DeConcini aide. The senator had pushed to get Lagakos on the peer review team, and any letter from Harvard "would not be taken lightly," Steele says. "That's just not the way we do things around here. Maybe we didn't get the letter."
Raymond is another who's vexed with a federal official turning down pleas for help. The legislator says Vernon Houk, the doctor who heads up the federal center for environmental health, helped slow the studies down. Houk has never been overly enthusiastic about the studies. In the fall of 1987, he told New Times: "My major concern for the people of Maryvale is for the property values of those people who own houses.
"They are going to hell."
Nevertheless, Houk had promised last year to help Arizona out by paying half the salary for a CDC epidemiologist who could move to Arizona and help out for the duration of the studies.
But, as Raymond tells it, the federal medical honcho went back on his promise. Houk refused to guarantee that any epidemiologist who moved to Arizona would get his old government job back once the studies had been completed, Raymond says. Obviously, no federal doctors were willing to come to Arizona unless their jobs were guaranteed upon their return. "Houk didn't live up to his commitment," growls Raymond, who says Ted Williams, the director of the health department, had to write a letter to Houk's superior before the matter was ironed out. Houk has now guaranteed the old job will be waiting for the scientist who decides to move out west.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY DEPARTMENT'S BUNGLES
A person can't help but feel sorry for Paul Scheidig. As ombudsman for the environmental quality department, he's had to explain, again and again, why his agency has repeatedly botched and bungled just about every monitoring or cleanup project it had promised in the wake of the New Times stories.
Scheidig is a reasonable guy who used to work in the forestry industry. He talks a lot about the difference between public bureaucracies and efficient private businesses. It makes you wonder what really goes on in his head when he tries to explain why his outfit still hasn't ordered polluting industries to clean up contaminated plumes of groundwater on the west side. There are laws and regulations that have to be followed, he says. You just can't clean the place up instantly. But he admits the department has "spent $450,000 for two groundwater studies, and it is difficult to comprehend what the cost went for."
It's important to keep in mind that city officials have tested Maryvale drinking water frequently since the New Times investigation. The water is safe now, the testers say.
But what's worrisome about the filthy west-side groundwater is that it travels. So what's safe today may not always be safe. It's all spelled out in a department report issued late last year: "Migration of the observed chemicals could possibly affect the health of future users."
The state has known about groundwater pollution beneath the gasoline- storage tank farm at 51st Avenue and Van Buren for more than three years. But the mess has yet to be cleaned up. Back in September 1985, Chevron Oil-- one of the companies using the tank farm--first reported that the groundwater was polluted with benzene, a known carcinogen, as well as other gasoline by- products and health-threatening solvents. The levels of most of these toxics were hundreds of times higher than federal safety levels for drinking water.
Two years later at the Maryvale High meeting, a department official said steps were at that very moment being taken to clean up the tank-farm poison. But there was a problem: The oil companies didn't want to be saddled with cleaning up the solvents, which they refused to take responsibility for. And what about cleaning up the benzene and other gasoline by- products? So far, the oil companies haven't said whether they'll accept responsibility for them, either.
What's really happening, critics say, is that the oil companies are taking advantage of the environmental quality department's wimpiness. That the tank- farm tenants are stringing the state along--waffling in order to delay cleanup costs.
There is a strong state Superfund law that would allow the department to force the tank-farm tenants to clean up their mess. But first the polluters have to be positively identified, and the department has yet to identify the tank-farm tenants as the polluters.
"We're still trying to deal with legal front-end stuff," Scheidig says. " The tank farm is cooperating, but we want to make sure they aren't linked to the solvents. The tank-farm area will probably be cleaned in the next year to two years. And Maryvale people aren't drinking that water, so it doesn't mean anything from a risk standpoint anyway," says Scheidig.
The agency also hired the consulting firm of Kleinfelder, Inc. to look into widespread solvent contamination of neighboring groundwater beneath industrial sections of the west side. The study area was bounded by McDowell Road, the Salt River, and Seventh and 83rd Avenues. The consultants concluded this plume, like the one under the tank farm, threatens to contaminate city drinking-water wells that are now clean.
In July 1988, Kleinfelder sent out forms to 850 potential industrial polluters, asking for information on the poisons they used. Only 218 companies responded.
Without trying to get in touch with the uncooperative industries, the environmental quality department instead publicly embarrassed some of the industries that had cooperated. Last December Scheidig publicly named sixteen "possible" responsible parties. "It's a first-blush kind of report," Scheidig admitted to the press at that time. "We have quite a bit of work to do."
Indeed. The sixteen "possible" polluters still have to be investigated to see if they can be named as the true culprits. Only then can they be forced to clean up. And the department admits it still has to contact more than 600 businesses that neglected to respond to the agency.
So when will the department finger the guilty parties and force the cleanup of this extensive groundwater contamination?
"I haven't been able to get anyone to narrow that down," says Scheidig, "I would hope we'll be able to name them in a year."
Then there's yet another plume of TCE-contaminated groundwater that lurks beneath Maryvale proper. This is the plume that forced the closure of two Maryvale drinking water wells in 1982, and it may force the closure of more wells. A department report says: "The potential risk to City of Phoenix drinking- water supply wells is high."
Fortunately for bottled-water fans, the Valley's sweetest-tasting, most trusted supply of drinking water, Crystal Bottled Water, is not imperiled by the filthy plume. Crystal's private well is in Maryvale, just a few blocks away from the wells that were shut off in 1982. However, Crystal pumps water from a deeper aquifer that is several hundred feet below the tainted groundwater plume. A buffer of clay hundreds of feet thick separates the contaminated plume from the aquifer that Crystal taps. The Crystal well would only be imperiled if the clay barrier were punched with holes by well drillers, scientists say, and that is unlikely.
The Earth Technology Corporation was the consultant hired by the environmental quality department to investigate possible polluters of the Maryvale plume. Earth Technology wrote 640 industries in the area asking for information on the chemicals they use. So far, the consultants haven't heard from about 180 companies. Of the companies that responded, Earth Technology singled out 28 possible polluters. The 28 companies will be investigated. Cleanup should begin in about a year.
Even so, the 180 industries that didn't bother to reply have gotten off the hook, at least temporarily.
"This takes so much time," Scheidig explains. "There's so much minutiae the department has to look at, and it takes so much time."
Debbie McCune, a west-side legislator who sits on the House Environmental Committee, says she was unaware that the state has so far let hundreds of potential polluters off the hook. "DEQ and DHS failed to address that issue in the briefings we attended," she says. "We were assured that the professionals were doing their jobs. I'm disturbed that this process is taking such a long time. But I'm pleased that things are going in the right direction. Those things don't happen overnight."
"The point here is, whoever pollutes should be paying for cleanup," counters MOM founder Melody Baker. "DEQ hasn't really gone after any polluter or assessed any cost recovery to date. I'm discouraged."
She's also discouraged by the agency's failure to perform soil testing in Maryvale for pesticides, another promise made in the wake of the New Times stories. To the department's credit, it did commission the UofA's office of Arid Land Studies to make impressive maps of land use in Maryvale from 1954 to 1985. The UofA mapmakers concluded that "sites are present within the Maryvale area of west Phoenix which may be impacting public health by the release of toxic substances into the environment."
The UofA's maps are supposed to serve as a framework for the state to conduct future environmental studies. Like soil sampling for pesticides, which was supposed to be conducted by the environmental quality department months ago. "I have no excuse for why that wasn't done," Scheidig says. "We should see some results within the next six months."
So why the delay? The department collected the samples last year, and it was supposed to get help from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the department botched negotiations with the EPA, which brought everything to a halt. In the meantime, the soil samples sat around for months and literally became stale and untestable.
Now new samples have to be gathered. "We have egg on our face over this one, " says Scheidig.
Then there was the faux pas with air tests. New Times' original investigation reported that an EPA study estimated thousands of pounds of health-threatening compounds called volatile organics were being spewed into west-side air by industry. That revelation led the department to test the air. It contracted with a California company, but the first test was wildly inaccurate. The department had to contract with a second company to repeat the test.
The results, released about a year after the first air samples were collected, revealed that the EPA estimate was correct. The west-side " residential" areas had the highest concentrations of volatile organics, which are thought to be carcinogens. The health department hints that even if this is a problem, it's not very significant. Some animal tests indicate that inhaling these poisons could cause "1.5 excess cancer cases" each year in the Phoenix area. However, other scientists question the value of using animals to determine cancer risks for people and note there is no safe threshold for human carcinogens.
Scheidig concludes that his department's blunders stem in part from the fact that "DEQ has never had a director with teeth." And he's hopeful that the newly named director, Randy Wood, will allow "leadership to finally prevail at DEQ."
But critical lawmakers say it's more than just a problem with leadership: That the entire agency, from top to bottom, is noted for its laziness and inability to clean up and monitor polluted sites throughout Arizona.
As for Paul Scheidig, he says he "can't wait" to work once again in the private sector.
PREVENTING FUTURE TRAGEDIES
The peer review scientists say they are heartened that the media attention finally prompted lawmakers to prevent another Maryvale tragedy. Politicians, who had refused to fund computer registries for birth defects and cancer statistics in the past, were finally forced to respond. Last year, Bobby Raymond took the lead and successfully nagged the legislature into passing a law that guarantees a yearly appropriation for statewide computerized registries for cancer and birth defects. Raymond is not liked by the environmentalists, however, who accuse him and his fellow politicos of grandstanding over the Maryvale issue. But it was Raymond who persuaded the legislature last year to dish out $350,000 for the new registries and the studies.
When unusual clusters appear, the state can track them. If they don't disappear, as in the Maryvale tragedy, then doctors can start studying possible causes quickly.
Registries such as Arizona's aren't common in the United States. California has the best known, most expensive system of detection. As some officials like to put it, California has the Cadillac of registries. Arizona has a Chevy. Fortunately for Arizona, the California peer reviewers can help Arizona set up its computer bank.
It will take two years before the registries are 100 percent up and running. What's more, as with most large statistical data banks, the registry information will always suffer a one-year lag because it takes that long to gather the statistics.
Unfortunately, some of the information already collected by the registries, like 1986 birth-defect statistics, has not been interpreted yet. Right now, the registry staff is a few months behind because it is helping out Flood and his health department staff with the incidence study.
Despite these drawbacks, the registries are state of the art, and the peer reviewers are thrilled about them. "You've got to emphasize the positive," says Dr. Herb Abrams, a peer reviewer from the UofA. "We've finally got these registries going."
California epidemiologist Richard Jackson urges Maryvale folks to have faith in the new, more caring health department. "It's very important that Arizona be left with some benefit for its trauma," he says. "Even if we don't figure out a cause for the cluster, the state is getting a functional health department that knows what to do and how to deal with situations quickly and aggressively."
The scientists all recognize that the studies are slogging along slowly. "I wish I had something sage to say," says Lagakos, the biostatistician from Harvard. "I sometimes have feelings of guilt and wish I could do more. I would suggest Maryvale people keep putting pressure on the committee to move ahead as fast as possible. At the same time, sometimes people's expectations of what you can get to the bottom of might be too high."
Abrams, like most of the other peer reviewers, recognizes that it's frustrating to live in a part of town with a high childhood-leukemia death rate and not know why. He understands why sometimes people like the MOM founders get upset and cynical: "You have to remember the golden rule. Put yourself in their place. I don't know if they're right, but I can at least sympathize. Most of their critics live in clean parts of town."
"One of these days we're going to luck out and possibly identify a cause."
Answers about what may have caused the cluster are as far away as 1991.
What's worrisome about the filthy west-side groundwater is that it travels.
"The point here is, whoever pollutes should be paying for cleanup."