December 7 - December 13, 1995

Water Whitewash

City Manager Michael Brown Defends Tucson Water's Troubling Recharge Project.

B y  J i m  W r i g h t

TUCSON CITY MANAGER Michael Brown is due for a job performance review by the mayor and council in January. During his last review, most council members gave the former Californian the old attaboy pat on the back.

This January, however, Brown may be in for a painful slap.

Some council members may even bring up Brown's November 28 memorandum critical of a recent press report regarding the city's attempts to begin a pilot water recharge project south of town along Pima Mine Road ("H2Oh-Oh," Tucson Weekly, November 22). Brown's memo attempted to convince the council all's well with the project, brushing aside concerns the city could be spending more than $1 million for a site with great potential for hazwaste contamination.

The city's plan for the Pima Mine Road Recharge Project calls for it to be located directly across and downgradient from an abandoned plant which processed hazardous mining chemicals. The plant is ringed with nearly a dozen underground fuel and chemical storage tanks, and at one time apparently included several acres of hazardous waste ponds.

The Weekly article Brown refers to in his memo to the council tells how the city condemned a 600-acre parcel for the project without first having conducted a thorough environmental assessment. Even officials of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the city's lead partner in the 10,000-acre foot project, told The Weekly they were unaware of any environmental studies of the area.

Jim McIntyre, CAWCD spokesman, told The Weekly an environmental assessment of the area wasn't necessary because, during the permitting process, the project would have to pass the rigorous standards of two state agencies, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

When told by The Weekly the city had already condemned the 600-acre parcel and was negotiating its purchase without having first determined if the area was environmentally safe, McIntyre's response was, "Oops!"

And Tucson Water spokesman Mitch Basefsky also confirmed an environmental assessment of the area "did not exist."

But Tucson Water Director Kent McClain had a different slant. McClain told The Weekly last Wednesday environmental assessment studies of the area weren't necessary. "This is what pilot projects are for," he said. "If there are problems with the project, we'll find out about them during the run of the (pilot) project."

McClain repeated this comment last week before an early morning meeting of the League of Women Voters, and to Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal, who expressed to McClain his dismay over the comment. By late last week, however, Leal reported McClain had changed his story and was now claiming Tucson Water conducted a thorough environmental assessment.

But the four studies McClain is now touting as relevant environmental assessments are not even remotely comprehensive. Some of the studies are without conclusion. None of the studies deals with the issues raised in The Weekly article, issues regarding potential hazards in and around the site chosen for recharge.

Two of the studies Brown and McClain are trying to pass off as due diligence studies are a soil type study and a depth-to-water assessment. Neither study meets the test of determining potential contaminants or hazards to the aquifer.

The other studies Brown and McClain have offered include a 15-year-old "Remote Sensing Investigation" conducted jointly by the Arizona Department of Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It's primarily a review of aerial photographs. In it, the EPA devotes two pages to the "study" of the abandoned mining plant. One page includes photographs of the site, while the other page identifies the site as having several "lagoons containing a dark liquid" and "a group of three lagoons containing a dark liquid similar in color to the large lagoon." The EPA study, as of this writing, is without conclusion. Or, more precisely, Tucson Water officials say they can't find the conclusion. "The state is trying to locate it," said Bruce Johnson, the city's chief hydrologist.

The final study offered by the city was completed in 1982. It was conducted by Pima Association of Governments, and it does not address the issues of toxic waste ponds or underground storage tanks.

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December 7 - December 13, 1995

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