Water Board Election Hits Boiling Point

EPA threatening to fine district for noncompliance

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Back in 1880 when Italian immigrant John Belluzzi and his red-haired bride, Mercedes, homesteaded the 140 acres on the upper East Verde they would eventually name Rim Trail Ranch, they thought of it as their Garden of Eden.

Today, however, a bitter political fight revolving around the Rim Trail Domestic Water Improvement District, has some residents of this tiny community between Whispering Pines and Washington Park, feeling like they're living in hell.

The two principals in this battle are Lionel "Marty" Martinez, incumbent chairman of the board of that water district, and Steve Emerson, who is running against him.

Emerson accuses Martinez of running a water district in a manner that is at best shoddy, and at worst dangerous. Martinez, who has held the board chairmanship for eight years, says Emerson is simply a developer who wants revenge because Martinez thwarted his efforts to build a bed-and-breakfast, complete with bar and restaurant, in Rim Trail.

The community, which was subdivided in 1946, is officially known as the Rim Trail Mountain Club. While it is made up of 139 lots and some 90 homes and cabins, it has just 15 full-time residents.

Martinez is one of the full-timers, while Emerson, who said he has a degree in mechanical engineering, splits his time between Rim Trail and the Valley. Although Emerson just bought the 12 acres he owns in Rim Trail in 1997, his family has six cabins and he said he's been visiting Rim Trail his entire life.

Manager under the microscope

The Rim Trail Domestic Water Improvement District, which was formed in 1980, is one of 1,500 special taxing districts in Arizona that are, for the most part, considered separate entities from the counties in which they were formed. The system draws surface water from the East Verde River and has three back-up groundwater wells, only one of which is operational.

Emerson charges that by not submitting water test samples and following other required procedures, the water district is seriously out of compliance with both Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and United States Environmental Protection Agency regulations. "Everybody drinking out of this water system is potentially being poisoned," Emerson said, "and they have no way of knowing whether they are or not."

The ADEQ and EPA back up Emerson's charges.

Facing fines for noncompliance

Sally Ceccarelli-Wolf, a compliance officer for ADEQ, noted in a compliance status request issued Sept. 22 that the district is out of compliance in a host of areas, including routine microbiological monitoring, inorganic sampling, asbestos sampling, nitrate monitoring, volatile organics sampling, synthetic organics sampling, radiochemical sampling, lead and copper sampling, and failed to provide evidence of disinfection and filtration.

In a certified letter dated May 23, Patrick Chan, enforcement officer for the Region IX EPA office, charged the Rim Trail District with failure to prepare and deliver to its customers an annual Consumer Confidence Report as required by federal law. In the letter, Chan ordered the district to comply no later than July 1, 2000 or face a fine of $27,500 per day.

"A Consumer Confidence Report is a disclosure of what your water quality is and what your treatment has been and whether or not you have deficiencies," Emerson said. "It was required 18 months ago and they are yet to comply. That's why the fine is so high."

To date, the system is still out of compliance with both agencies. Ceccarelli-Wolf said ADEQ has received the microbiological samples for September, but has not seen any asbestos, nitrate, nitrite, radiochemicals, lead or copper samples.

She also pointed out that ADEQ did a physical inspection of the facility Oct. 11. While that inspection determined that the "system was in generally good physical condition," it does not address "a number of monitoring problems and reporting problems with the system."

Ceccarelli-Wolf said that in some areas, specifically the requirement for inorganic, volatile organic and synthetic organic samples, ADEQ is partly to blame because no points of entry were identified for the samples to be collected. While ADEQ has not moved to penalize the Rim Trail district, Ceccarelli-Wolf said, "If a lot of people call about the system, it will move up higher on our radar screen. We do have enforcement options."

Chan, who works out of EPA's San Francisco office, said that the water district's manager, Joe Knoell, told him he was working on compiling a water quality report. "But I haven't seen it yet," he said.

Shifting responsibility

Emerson said it's bad enough that the water district has serious sampling and compliance problems, but Martinez makes it worse by denying them.

"At an open meeting on Labor Day, Martinez told the audience that the district was in full compliance," Emerson said. "When somebody challenged him on it, he said that ADEQ was all screwed up, and there is no way they're not in compliance. We have his comments on tape."

When asked about the compliance problems, Martinez placed the blame squarely on ADEQ.

"Any time you do tests, they manage to lose them," he said. "And then they're always changing inspectors. This has been going on for three years."

Martinez blamed his problems with the EPA on a misunderstanding.

"They sent us a (Consumer Confidence Report) form letter, and we thought it was a trial run," he said. "There was some confusion, but it is now being done. It's a long process."

Martinez also referred the Roundup to Patrick Finton, an environmental engineering specialist with ADEQ, and the person who inspected the Rim Trail system on Oct. 11. "Patrick Finton tested us, and he said, 'If anybody has questions, have them call me.'"

When contacted, Finton said that his role is to inspect the physical system and that compliance, reporting and sampling are entirely separate and unrelated. His inspection report, however, indicated that while the system is in "generally good physical condition ... the seven-day chart recorder for turbidity and chlorine was not operating." It also noted that the district needs to develop or update an emergency operating plan and that its carbon filters are "probably totally ineffective at this time" because of their placement. Several other operating/equipment deficiencies also were noted in the report.

Fiscal accountability

Besides sampling and compliance issues, Emerson said he thinks the water district is being run in "horrendous" fashion. He said it was necessary to file a formal request to see the district's books, and when they were finally provided, there was "no line item accounting for where their money was going."

Despite the fact that the district handles $50,000 a year, district officials claimed "there was not enough money involved" to do line item bookkeeping, Emerson said.

He also accused the water district of not carrying insurance for water contamination liability and operations and maintenance liability, and of hiring unlicensed contractors.

In a letter to residents, Martinez denied the accounting charge.

"During the Sept. 25 water district meeting, the outside accountants report covering all the records of the district for the year 1999-2000 were open to inspection by meeting attendees. ... I think the records are the best answer I can give."

As to other alleged charges, including one that he is "stealing water district money," Martinez wrote, "I view it as malicious slander and the worst kind of political mudslinging, adding that Emerson is "the same Mr. Emerson that wanted to ignore the legal lot descriptions ... and have the district install meters at his discretion. ... I was forced," he complained, "to get a legal opinion from the Gila County attorney explaining to Mr. Emerson why it was illegal to shift property assessments from one parcel to another."

Political newcomer

Emerson does not deny his political aspirations, but said he is running because he can do a better job.

"This water system, which charges rates twice those of other water districts in the area, has been out of compliance with ADEQ and EPA regulations for over five years," he said. "I have worked at water treatment facilities. I worked with Exxon U.S.A., with San Diego Gas and Electric. I'm a guy who can operate this system the way it needs to be operated for everybody's health and wellbeing."

But Emerson said his motives run deeper than his own election to an unpaid position. "Hopefully if I get elected I can rectify these situations, but in the meantime, the truth has to be out in public hands. Anybody who comes out to Rim Trail needs to have this information."

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