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UA settles claim stemming from buried pesticides

By Michael Lafleur
Arizona Daily Wildcat
March 2, 1999
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The UA will shell out about $440,000 for selling a plot of land to a Mesa school district that university employees contaminated with pesticides more than 40 years ago.

UA officials gained Arizona Board of Regents approval Friday to settle a claim filed against the university for selling the East Valley Institute of Technology - a 79.2 acre plot used for agricultural research.

The Mesa School District purchased the University Experimental Farm, a citrus grove, in May 1996 for $3.3 million. The vocational school then set about constructing a high school on the land.

During a "trenching" operation in 1997, workers unearthed a pallet of pesticides which had been buried by University of Arizona employees in the late 1950s.

UA President Peter Likins said such claims are a common occurrence today, adding that the university was willing to admit its responsibility.

"Clearly, we put the pesticides there," Likins said Friday. "This is very unfortunate but sadly routine. There's no dispute to resolve."

The discovery resulted in the excavation of 214 tons of contaminated soil, delaying building for about two months.

The UA was liable for the damages because of a contractual clause that held them responsible for any damages resulting from its use of the property. The State Department of Risk Management, which insures most state agencies, split the total cost of the settlement.

UA Attorney Thomas Thompson, who represented the university for the case, said the negotiations have not been very heated.

"There hasn't been a lot of emotion connected with this thing," Thompson said yesterday. "Other than being separated from our money, the liability issue seemed fairly clear."

Attorney Kevin O'Malley, who represented the technology institute, said his clients were pleased with the UA's handling of the matter.

"It was not a bitterly contested dispute," said O'Malley, a lawyer with the Phoenix-based firm Gallagher and Kennedy. "Everyone worked in a professional and collegial way to solve the problem and get EVIT its reimbursement."

Thompson said the farm was not a toxic dumping ground, but rather the case represents the changing perceptions about how to deal with old pesticides.

"It's unfortunate because we're applying today's standards to behavior 40 years ago," he said. "In those days you just poured them (pesticides) down the drain or threw them away. It (burying the chemicals) was an extraordinary effort in those days."

Thompson added the land was "regular old citrus farm" on which agricultural chemicals were used.

"You don't generally grow orchards on toxic waste dumps," he said.

O'Malley said the technical high school has almost been completed and students have been attending classes there since the fall.

"The problem was identified and fixed by EVIT," he said yesterday. "Construction was then recommenced and the project was finished."

When the bills came in, the negotiations began, O'Malley said.

Thompson said getting the involved parties' signatures on the settlement is all that remains to be resolved.