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Toxic waste, toxic treatment

By Ashley Weaver
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 29, 1999

In 1983, it was asked: "What was it like to really live in Arizona, as opposed to the high-energy, air-conditioned, water-sogged oasises that now rupture the terrain?" In 1923, a retired street-car conductor from Kansas City, John Timothy Page, and his wife Sarah, sought to find out.

The "worn-out land" Page found beside the Oracle highway, which, since the 1880s, had been over-grazed by cattle and taken over by harvester ants and kangaroo rats, had been stripped of the native grasses to leave prickly pears, stubby mesquites and weeds. For 18 years of the Pages' lives, rainwater was hoarded, run into pack-rat middens and diverted to feed the earth in the most efficient manner. The Pages had no electricity, no running water except what came from the sky, no horse, not even a well.

Lucy Levering, their niece, said in a 1983 interview, "some people going by on the Oracle Road would look over and see this little green patch there, and I used to refer to it as 'God's Little Acre'."

On January 22, 1941, Page turned over his half section of land to the Arizona Board of Regents for $10. The adjoining half section of land was purchased later that year for another $10, and the entire section was called the Page Ranch International Center for Arid Lands Agriculture.

The focus and philosophy for Page Ranch, as recorded by the UA, claimed that it could "become a unique field station for experimental research and demonstration projects related to appropriate systems and technologies for living in arid regions. The focus could be on rural and remote situations, with an emphasis towards self-sufficiency, decentralization and appropriateness for developing nations."

But the university did not, in fact, "continue the work begun by an old man with vision and a deep love for the land in his heart."

They turned the Page Ranch into a landfill.

Pictures of the Page Ranch in later years show workers in hard hats, gas masks and white suits standing with truckloads full of laboratory waste, chucking containers and drums into pits of fire.

At the end of World War II, Wallace Fuller, a professor of soils, water and engineering at the UA, decided to dispose of radioactive materials used for experiments. He chose Page Ranch because of "low rainfall, high evaporation rates and depth to ground water." More than 280 tons of toxic waste were buried in the Page-Trowbridge Ranch, not counting radioactive and chemical wastes, as well as unreported toxic wastes buried from the late 1940s through 1977.

An inspection report from Dec. 11, 1974 says "fires and explosions do occur in the pit. Thick acid smoke is also produced. A violent explosion did occur during this inspection that did cause injury. . .The fallout of chemicals was rather minor . . . There is some...danger to humans and animals."

Chemical fires were intentionally set, resulting in clouds of smoke so dense they were mistaken in Catalina for plane crashes.

According to the UA, 43,200 pounds of radioactive material was dumped in unlined holes in one year. Containers of radioactive waste were tossed into pits and covered with soil. Liners weren't used until 1983, and the lab packing used was for the intent of later exhuming the material, an undertaking estimated to cost $7-10 million in 1986 - the year the landfill's dumping ended. But the closure plan was postponed until the 1990s.

All this is 3.3 miles from the town of Oracle's sole water supply and aquifer, and not much farther away from the wells providing water for Catalina and parts of Tucson. Carbon tetra chloride, trichlorethylene and chloroform were detected at levels from 700 to 800 feet below ground.

In 1989, the soil and soil gas was found to be contaminated with several more volatile organic compounds.

Even in a best-case scenario, Web Parton reported in his University of Arizona Page-Trowbridge Ranch Radioactive/Toxic Waste Landfill Report: "The impermeable life expectancy of an FML (Flexible Membrane Liner, which was not used) is about 28 years."

All precautions and barriers were removed, to be cost-efficient, except for the layer of clay. The UA bought 17,000 tons of the cheapest clay it could find - clay that, according to Steve Holland, director of the UA Office of Risk Management and Safety, "did not meet the permeability specification" - then delayed payment until a lawsuit was brought against them. The UA then changed their minds about the clay and decided instead to cap the landfill with a Soil Infiltration Barrier, which would combine the inferior clay with contaminated soil from the Page Ranch site. Essentially, the radioactive landfill was sealed with dirt.

Page Ranch is potentially, as Parton says, "a toxic time bomb ticking in the midst of some unsuspecting developers' sunny paradise." Who is drinking this chloroform-ridden water? Who has been breathing in the soot-filled air? Who has been eating the beef from the cattle allowed to graze on the radioactive landfill since 1992?

We may never know answers to any of these questions. But ultimately, we have our fair University of Arizona to thank for the desiccation of an old man's dream, the ravaging of a restored parcel of land and the uncertainty of knowing where 50 years of radioactive and toxic waste has gone.

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