A clean bill of health
After years of accusations by worried Oracle residents, the results from new tests done at the UA's Page Ranch waste site may give those residents more confidence in their water.
No plutonium contamination was found in the wells at the UA's Page Ranch landfill from a sampling taken April 26.
"There's no plutonium out there," said Herb Wagner, assistant director of Risk Management. "No radioactivity has been found."
The results validate what Risk Management officials have been saying for months, in the face of protests and boycotts from Oracle residents.
"We knew there wasn't going to be any plutonium," said Steve Holland, director of Risk Management.
All of the results concerning possible chemical contamination in the water at Page Ranch are not in yet. All of the samplings are taken from four testing wells at the landfill.
"On the surface that's good news, of course it's a relief," said Dean Prichard, an Oracle resident and member of the town's steering committee.
The latest tests are a product of the relentless concern and vocal activism of Oracle's residents who have seen the landfill as a threat to their water supply.
Tests were normally conducted on the wells every other year at a cost of about a $1,000 a test.
While more expensive and extensive tests were performed most recently - and came back clean of radioactive elements - Oracle resident Web Parton said he is not confident that Page Ranch isn't a hazard.
"Plutonium is the last of our worries," said Parton, a free-lance writer who released an extensive report on the landfill in September. "They don't know what they put in the ground or where it is."
Located just south of the town of Oracle - a small town hunched along Oracle Road - three miles from the town's main water supply, the Page Ranch landfill is not marked by anything. Barbed-wire fences line the roadside with scattered signs stating that it is University of Arizona property, no trespassing.
The only discernible structure is a geodesic ramada that appears to be deteriorating.
Outside the landfill, the land is grazed by cattle and littered with snake holes - the same as it was prior to it being taken over by John Page, a farmer who acquired the land for agriculture.
Page turned the area into a Center of Arid Lands Agriculture and diverted rain water to enhance the land's agricultural development.
He sold the land to the Arizona Board of Regents for $20 in 1941 and the dumping began soon after.
Before the UA had even begun dumping chemical and radioactive waste regularly at Page Ranch in 1962, 280 tons of radioactive waste had already been buried at the site.
The area was chosen for its ideal environmental conditions by Wallace Fuller, formerly a professor of soils, water and engineering at the UA.
The area's "low rainfall, high evaporation and the depth of groundwater" were the qualities the university was looking for in a landfill, according to a document produced by the UA in 1984 titled "Questions Concerning the University of Arizona Hazardous Waste Landfill at Page Ranch."
Initially, radioactive waste was disposed of by placing it in bags and bottles, then burying it in pits that when filled would be covered with soil, the report stated.
"Although the university has long felt that it was wrong to dispose of chemicals in the sewer or in sanitary landfills, the technology for the disposal of hazardous waste has only recently begun to develop," the report stated.
A special grade of red clay has been used to create a natural impermeable barrier meant to keep all waste in the cells in case a bottle or bag breaks. Cells - pits where the waste was buried - are now double lined with plastic.
Once the cells were filled, drums were placed on top of the waste and were then covered with soil.
While this was the practice for some of the waste dumped, for years chemical waste was burned in the pits.
"The dioxin from chemical burning could have gone miles," Parton said.
The burning of chemicals was done in the 1970s and for a brief period of time, evaporation of the waste was a method of disposal.
Parton said he also doubts that clay, sand and gravel can act as a barrier for toxic waste. He argues that composition would act as a "stair step" for the materials to travel into the ground water.
"A cap is only safe if it covers the depot," Parton said.
All dumping was stopped in 1986 when Page Ranch was closed.
In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deemed that Page Ranch was not a threat to Oracle's water supply.
The relationship between the residents of Oracle and the UA has been strained by the fear of toxic waste and it cannot be determined whether Page Ranch receiving a good bill of health will improve that.
Confidence in the security of the material buried at Page Ranch may still be pending the second part of the results from the well samplings.
"They (the UA) would love to wave a flag (of victory), unfortunately they're not drinking the water," Parton said.