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EPA satisfied with UA testing at toxic dump

By Erin Mahoney
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
January 28, 2000
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An official from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency yesterday said Oracle residents have no reason to be worried about testing procedures at the UA's Page Ranch.

"We're advised of each step they're doing," said Jennifer Downey, environmental scientist at the EPA. "We don't think it (groundwater contamination) is a problem at this point."

The University of Arizona is in the process of applying for a required postclosure permit from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Downey said yesterday from her San Francisco office.

This permit, which will be issued by ADEQ under the advisement of the EPA, requires UA to "maintain the integrity of the (landfill) cover and groundwater testing," she said.

The UA has owned the Page Trowbridge Ranch land near Oracle since 1941, using it as a toxic waste dump until 1986. Since the early 1980s, residents have complained that radioactive materials may have contaminated the town's only aquifer.

Oracle residents boycotted the UA's annual Page Ranch well testing earlier this month after university officials were unable to organize a more in-depth test.

Oracle residents want to check for certain elements - such as plutonium- that are not part of the UA's groundwater evaluation. University officials have promised to organize such a test later this spring.

Although Downey said it is a "very remote possibility" that the town's groundwater is contaminated, she praised the UA for wanting to ease residents' minds.

"It's a good idea, if it appeases the residents," she said. "I'd be scared, too."

But Oracle resident Dean Prichard, a member of the town's steering committee, said the EPA has downplayed the importance of an extensive test.

"It's a step in the right direction," said Prichard. "I don't think they should be doing it to ease Oracle's mind."

Prichard said he is disappointed by the EPA's conclusion about the UA's testing procedures.

"We thought the EPA would get more closely involved in monitoring what the UA and ADEQ are doing," he said. "We have faith in the EPA. We don't have faith in the ADEQ."

ADEQ officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Steve Holland, UA's director of Risk Management, said the EPA, a federal agency, has no loyalty to the university or ADEQ, which are state agencies.

"They're extra sensitive to (the relationship between) ADEQ and the university," Holland said.

UA spokeswoman Sharon Kha said the EPA's approval is not a surprise.

"The university has been taking all the steps to do this right," Kha said. "If we had been doing things wrong, we would have been hearing loud screams from San Francisco."

Kha admitted that Oracle residents' fears are the result of mis-communication from the UA.

"There was a gap of many years with no communication to the people of Oracle, and we had promised them we would stay in contact," she said. "We have a big responsibility to make up for that."

She added that the new tests later this spring may ease the town's fears.

"The people in Oracle are going to be concerned until they have enough information," Kha said. "They probably don't have enough information yet, but we're doing all we can."

Prichard said the UA has been uncharacteristically cooperative with Oracle residents.

"They've really done an about-face here, but we figure PR is cheaper than remediation," he said. "It's certainly a better situation than before."

Oracle steering committee Mary Ellen Kazda said she is anxiously awaiting the in-depth tests later this spring - despite the EPA's confidence in the UA.

"My problem with the UA is that they let that gunk sit for 10 years," said Kazda, who was a member of the UA ad-hoc committee that voted to close the site in the 1980s. "I just want to see very thorough water testing on a regular basis."

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