Risk Management concedes to extensive Page Ranch tests
UA officials hope expensive test will mend fences with Oracle residents
After years of protest from Oracle residents about the safety of the UA-owned Page Ranch, Risk Management officials have conceded to a more extensive - and expensive - testing of the land's groundwater later this month.
"We're going to test for what they want," said Steve Holland, Risk Management director. "It's not something worth arguing about."
The test, tentatively scheduled for April 26, would detect volatile elements like plutonium and cost nearly five times the UA's normal inspection, conducted annually and bi-annually since 1984, Holland said.
Samples from the Page Ranch wells will also be split between UA's designated laboratory and one chosen by Oracle residents.
Since the landfill's closure in 1984, the UA has performed $1,000 tests at the site's wells at least once yearly, checking for certain chemical compounds like chloroform, Holland said.
Risk Management invited Oracle residents to their January inspection, but town residents boycotted the event, claiming that a more extensive test - costing about $5,000 - is needed to assuage their fears.
The University of Arizona-owned land, purchased in 1941, was used as a toxic waste dump until 1984. Since the early 1980s, residents have complained that the dumped chemicals may have contaminated the town's drinking water.
In January, Holland said he favored dual testing but believed the extensive test was unnecessary.
"At some point, it becomes unreasonable," he told the Wildcat earlier this year. "There is no plutonium in this land."
But Holland said he has "grown" since then.
"At that point, I wasn't willing to expend as much money," he said. "I have been trying to provide information and be more open in terms of communicating."
Oracle resident and steering committee member Cliff Russell said the UA has taken a positive step, but old wounds haven't healed.
"It gives the residents the impression that they (UA officials) are a little more proactive," he said. "It's helping."
The January tests said harmful chemicals were "non-detectable" in the wells, Holland said, but Risk Management will still foot the bill for the new test to alleviate residents' concerns.
"If it was just me, I wouldn't be running a test for plutonium," Holland said. "But if it answers a question for someone else, why not? We're not talking about mass quantities of money here."
Russell, who serves as the liaison between Oracle's designated laboratory and the residents, said the UA should do the tests even if they cost "10 times as much."
"There's a great deal of risk here, including the property values and lives of the people that live here," Russell said. "In the past, they (UA) were more concerned with saving money than protecting the people that live here."
Results for both tests will be available 30 days after the samples are drawn, Holland said.
If results of either test detect dangerous chemicals, Risk Management will issue an immediate re-test, he added, although he doesn't expect the tests will return any positive results.
"We've been saying all along that the likelihood of groundwater contamination is minimal," he said.
Even if the results cannot detect volatile compounds, they may still exist, Russell said.
"If that's true, we know the chemicals haven't gotten into the aquifer yet," he said. "And that's a big 'yet.'"
The comprehensive test will, however, be a one-time event, Holland said, unless the results are abnormal.
"This is not about changing our procedures permanently," he said. "We will test for what is required in our postclosure permit."
The permit, which has not yet been granted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, requires the UA to maintain their groundwater testing procedures.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality will hold a public hearing May 31 in Oracle to hear resident concerns about the property.
"The intent is to try to get through the questions these folks have," Holland said. "Part of the goal there is to develop some communication."
Russell said a UA plan for postclosure - which will include specific testing procedures and is not yet finalized - is the only way to appease his fellow residents.
"That's the only thing that's going to put people's minds at rest," he said. "The university has created a problem here that just won't go away because of people's opinions."
UA spokeswoman Sharon Kha said she isn't convinced that the dual test will resolve the miscommunication that has existed between the UA and Oracle's residents.
"I don't know if it will mend fences or not," she said. "It's the beginning of a way to establish credibility."
Holland said the UA has made mistakes in dealing with resident concerns.
"We didn't really take the time to keep Oracle involved, and we should have," he said.
Kha said some residents will never be satisfied with the UA's testing procedures.
"There are some people who will continue to be fearful because this is an unseen threat," she said. "As we (UA) continue to keep abreast of the technology and continue to do the best we can, we have the chance of regaining the trust of the people of Oracle."