UA asserts campus water safe from nearby toxins
Arizona Summer Wildcat
While UA administrators were confident the campus groundwater supply remains safe, EPA and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality officials said the removal of nearby contaminants has not moved fast enough.
According to a 1990 ADEQ investigation, the carcinogenic chemicals tetracloroethylene (PCE) and tricloroethylene (TCE) contaminate an aquifer about one mile south of the University of Arizona.
Four UA drinking water wells lie near the contamination plume, including one less than a mile from the site.
While no surrounding drinking water has been contaminated, officials have been unable to determine how fast the toxic deposits are seeping toward surrounding wells.
"There's not a whole lot we can do to stop it. We're just monitoring it," said Steve Holland, director of UA Risk Management.
Holland said the university is considered an "interested party," and has been working with the ADEQ to increase testing on campus. He said he is satisfied with the agency's actions.
If the contamination moves north, it is likely to pollute the UA's drinking water and affected wells would be shut down immediately, Holland said.
The UA now tests the drinking water supply for volatile compounds like PCE more frequently, with the next sample to be taken in mid-August.
Eighty-four percent of the university's water comes from eight groundwater wells, while the remainder is bought from Tucson Water, said Lang Lawrence, UA Facilities Management staff engineer.
Shutting down wells would increase the cost of water because pumping is significantly cheaper than buying from the city, he said.
The contaminants came from decades of laundry and dry-cleaning businesses operating above the aquifer. Currently, Mission Uniform and Linen Service is located at the site, 301 S. Park Ave.
Mission Linen is investigating the source of the pollution under ADEQ supervision.
The department listed the site on the state Superfund program in 1991, officially making it an environmental priority for Arizona.
But the investigation has dragged since then, said Pat Clymer, ADEQ site project manager.
"I think its been a little slow," she said. "There have been some problems."
Clymer said understaffing has slowed the investigation.
Before anyone can be sure exactly where the contamination has spread and what can be done to stop it, a remedial investigation must be completed. She said it will begin in November and a plan to solve the problem will possibly be ready in June 2001.
She added that treatment of the contamination will cost "millions of dollars."
Whether that plan will be effective before the contamination spreads is unknown, Clymer said.
"It's the best we can do," she said. "Some things you just can't speed up."
While the contamination can't be completely treated until the remedial investigation is complete, Mission, the ADEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency are taking action to better monitor the pollution's movement.
"We don't even know if it's at the university wells yet," Clymer said.
Holland said the contaminants' movement is difficult to monitor because there are so few wells between the plume and the UA wells. The ADEQ plans to put monitoring wells around campus to test water before it reaches the UA drinking water supply.
Mission Linen is installing a soil vapor extraction system to treat the pollution at the source - an important step in the process, Clymer said.
The EPA is also considering putting the Mission site on its Superfund National Priorities List, and is unsatisfied with the investigation's progress, a July 14 letter to Arizona Gov. Jane Hull stated.
"EPA has concluded that the site poses a significant threat to public health, welfare, or the environment," the letter stated.
The government agency got involved at the request of a neighborhood association, and conducted a site inspection in June.
The letter, signed by regional administrator Felicia Marcus, requested the Arizona government's position on a national Superfund listing.
At the city level, Tucson Water has no direct involvement with the contamination, but spokesman Mitch Basefsky expressed concern about the operation.
"They need to get started on it," he said. "We really want to see it cleaned up as quickly as it can be."
But Holland said the UA is satisfied with the current priority level of the Mission site, and is not questioning the efficiency of the ADEQ.
"If a year or two goes by and no progress is made, we may raise the question," he said.
UA spokeswoman Sharon Kha said the university has no official position in the matter, besides the intention to work with the state.
"It's not really close enough to us for us to have to be doing anything in particular," she said.
Tetracloroethylene is often used as a dry cleaning solvent and is a potential human carcinogen, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Symptoms related to exposure to PCE include depression of the human nervous system, liver and kidney damage, impaired memory, headaches and eye, nose and throat irritation.