B y J . E . R e l l y
WHEN PAT ZURICK began working as deputy director of Santa Cruz County Public Health Department six years ago, he met residents unaware of sewage flowing in the clear stream through the downtown Nogales Wash. People unknowingly ate in restaurants that hadn't been properly inspected for five years. Septic system site evaluations had been falsified or improperly evaluated. And many Nogales, Arizona, residents had become resigned to the smoke hovering over their city from the burning hazardous waste site across the border. For 20 years, schools closed when students complained of burning eyes from the vapors of the dump's smoldering plastics.
In February, after four years of pitched battle with authorities, the main burning at the Nogales, Sonora, dump has nearly stopped. A new landfill has been established 14 miles south. The sewage running through the downtown Nogales Wash is now chlorinated. Restaurants with substandard conditions are closed. And last year, Santa Cruz County became the first county in the state to adopt an ordinance requiring licenses for anyone performing septic system soil tests.
After tirelessly pushing for a better public health course for Santa Cruz County, Zurick is departing for a post as environmental health director in Gallatin County, Montana, population 54,000. He's trading the vicissitudes of burning dump smoke for air quality monitoring of snowmobile exhausts in Yellowstone National Park. In contrast to the sometimes hostile reception from local officials and the recalcitrant Nogales business community, Zurick was told in his Montana interview that growth there is imminent but the community wants a pristine environment maintained wherever possible.
Zurick, a resident of Arizona for some 20 years, came to Santa Cruz County without great knowledge of border issues. He was criticized by a business community angered by his publicly identifying environmental problems. Critics charged such candid disclosures would hurt economic development and tourism.
Promoted to health department director in '93, Zurick never allowed Chamber of Commerce pressure to alter his course. His office phone number was often printed at the end of local news articles outlining public health advisories. He made public education on local air and water quality a priority, giving talks at Rotary Club and other civic organizations, churches and schools. As a result, some residents initially hostile toward publicly airing the county's environmental woes now are the biggest advocates of cleaning up the border. But Zurick concedes he still has foes.
In his first months in office, Zurick says he didn't strategically plan a border clean up. It just sort of happened. "We started doing the water sampling in Nogales Wash and got fecal coliform counts 4,000 times above the state limits. That isn't healthy."
Unlike his predecessors, Zurick publicly released copies of water sample results from the Nogales Wash. Previously uninformed residents were outraged. When local and state governments didn't solve the wash problems, in October '90, Zurick recommended the board of supervisors call a state of emergency--an historical first for public health on the border.
Several weeks into the emergency, Zurick hadn't received a response or resources from the state or federal governments. He and an associate decided to fax a copy of the state of emergency declaration to news organizations around the country.
Things took off after that. Arizona's congressional delegation pressured the feds to send resources. It took major battles before Zurick and associates convinced officials that waste flowing through the downtown area was hazardous. The feds eventually supplied chlorine for the sewage--"a short-term solution."
One of Zurick's biggest disappointments during his tenure has been that plans and federal funding for a wastewater treatment system haven't come through. The current treatment system, which handles sewage for both Nogales border cities, has been at capacity since January. "The chlorine is working; we're happy to have it," says Zurick. "But it was supposed to be a short-term solution. If all you had to do to treat sewage was chlorinate, we wouldn't be spending billions of dollars in the U.S. building wastewater treatment plants and sewer systems."
Bi-national environmental problems weren't all that Zurick contended with during his Nogales career. Before he arrived in '89, any home received approval for a septic permit. Building contractors installed septic systems even in areas where soil percolation rates couldn't handle them. Septic systems failed. Sewage ponded in backyards.
"We started investigating and found (civil engineering contractors) either weren't doing their jobs or were falsifying information (about the soil) to get septic permits."
Zurick cracked down on soil testing. He hired sanitarians to observe the contractors. Overnight, 30 percent of the soil tests didn't pass.
"There's just so much pressure here because most of the growth is taking place in areas with septic systems. (Engineers, contractors and Realtors) want to sell lots and build homes. There's a lot of pressure not to do it right--to try to sneak things by. We fight that, but unfortunately we still find a lot of failed systems."
Contractors and civil engineers fought Zurick on scheduled health department soil testing site evaluations, saying they slowed economic development. Critics of the stringent guidelines lobbied the board of supervisors. But last year a county ordinance was adopted requiring licenses for engineering contractors conducting site evaluations or installing septic systems. Says Zurick, "I've had to suspend two people's licenses in the last two months for not doing the (soil percolation tests) right."
In addition to alienating some contractors, engineers and Realtors, Zurick developed a reputation in the restaurant community. "If they didn't clean up, we'd put them out of business," he says.
Despite resistance from restaurant owners, inspections have been routine throughout Zurick's health department service. Says Zurick of the early inspections, "If you saw some of the pictures of the conditions we found, you wouldn't want to eat lunch. We had restaurants that didn't have sinks for cooks to wash their hands. No operating refrigerators." As a result of many failed inspections, Zurick began a county-sponsored restaurant manager training program.
After doggedly pursuing a righteous public health path for Santa Cruz County with solid results, Zurick says his motivation is dwindling. He says his successor will need dedication. The local problems are too severe for a kick-back-and-collect-a-paycheck kind of approach to the job.
But the next person hired will begin with septic, food, swimming pool, air and water quality monitoring programs in place. "They aren't going to be the one these people are always going to associate with coming in and changing everything," he says. "They won't have the enemies.
"(Santa Cruz County) has so many different problems, yet we're at the mercy of so many different state and federal environmental and health agencies. We can't control a lot here. Two weeks ago we had a meeting in Rio Rico. We had federal and state officials here to talk about border issues. It was a good meeting. But I've been going to those meetings for so long it's hard to have a positive attitude. I've heard the same thing over and over again for years. 'We're going to solve the problem and things like that.'
"So maybe it's time for someone who doesn't have all this past history to come in at a different stage. My stage was to get attention here--to get the problems documented.
"Now that some of the resources are coming in, maybe it will be easier for a new person to move on to the next stage."
After six years of trying to clean up the environmental nightmares of Nogales, Santa Cruz County Health Director Pat Zurich moving on.
Photo By Jeff Scott
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