Federal health experts thought they had turned the corner in the fight against toxic pollution that has infected the groundwater beneath Phoenix since the 1960s. But air and soil samples taken from two neighborhoods show a new problem. It isn't just the water that's contaminated.
"The TCE under the ground is actually coming up through the ground and into the air in Phoenix," said Steve Brittle, an environmentalist and president of a group called Don't Waste Arizona.
Brittle is referring to Trichloroethylene, or TCE, which was used in the microchip processing industry in Phoenix and around the world for decades. In several locations across the Valley, workers dumped TCE into leaky underground tanks, dry wells and washes. The chemical polluted the Valley's groundwater, and is one of the main reasons Phoenix residents receive water from the Colorado River in their taps.
The old Motorola plant at 52nd Street and McDowell Road in Phoenix is one of the locations where TCE leaked into the water table. The location was named a federal Superfund site more than 20 years ago, which allowed the community to force the polluting company to pay for the cleanup.
Since that time, the TCE levels in the groundwater have dropped dramatically, thanks to an expensive decontamination process. But as the recent air and soil samples show, the problem is not going away just yet.
"If it's coming into their houses today, I would bet it's been happening for the last 30 years. And there's probably plenty of homes where they don't even know this is happening to them," said Brittle.
The EPA examined air and soil samples from the neighborhoods directly west and northwest of the Motorola site. The air in or under 69 homes showed TCE vapor levels between two and 42,000 parts per billion. Only levels of less than two parts per billion are considered safe.
At a recent community meeting, federal health officials admitted they did not know if the vapors have or will cause health problems for the people who breathe them, day in and day out.
"We're just beginning to look at the vapor intrusion data," said Capt. Robert Knowles from the U.S. Public Health Service.
Residents told CBS 5 Investigates that they are concerned about the vapor.
"I suffer from allergies and asthma. This can't be good for that," said Todd Schwarz, who lives nearby and serves on the local school board. One of the schools sits just one block from the Motorola site.
"They wanted to put a pipeline through the school, but they really couldn't say with 100-percent certainty that there wouldn't be any leaks in the pipeline or that failures would not occur," said Schwarz.
The school board voted down the idea last summer.
The company that now owns the site, Freescale Semiconductor, is paying for the air and soil testing. It is also retrofitting homes with high levels of TCE with special ventilators meant to carry the gas away from the living areas.
But despite an extensive effort to remediate the water, test for toxic vapor and educate the residents, some longtime residents had no idea there was a problem.
Erica Guerrero and her family have lived on the street directly west of the Motorola plant for 15 years. She said she had never heard of the TCE contamination. When asked if anyone had tested the air in her home or the soil around it, she answered, "Not that I know of."
Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.
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