by Charlene Hunt
roundup staff reporter
It has been 11 years since Buzz Walker first detected a contaminant in the new wells the Payson Water Department had drilled on West Aero Drive.
The contaminant was tetrachloroethylene (PCE), a manufactured chemical that is widely used for dry cleaning of fabrics and metal degreasing. It is also used to make other chemicals and is found in some consumer products such as auto brake cleaners, suede protectors, water repellents and silicone lubricants.
Walker's department spent the next eight years lobbying to have the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality declare the well water an "orphan." The PCE contamination level in the water at that time was 13,000 parts per billion (ppb). The owner of the dry cleaning business which was then located in the 900 block of south Beeline Highway had died years ago, so there was no one to hold accountable.
ADEQ eventually accepted the task of cleaning up the water and built a multi-million dollar facility on Aero Drive which now is in full operation. Water from the Aero wells is now pumped through the plant where it is cleansed of the PCE and sent on its way for public use.
The water department has since remained diligent in testing other wells around Payson, especially the three located near Rumsey Park, as the deep, underground aquifer from W. Aero flows in the direction of the park.
In November 2000, PCE raised its ugly head at two of the Rumsey wells at a maximum level of 1.6 ppb. The water department closely monitored the wells over the next several months, sending reports of the contamination to ADEQ. The levels fluctuate from a high of 1.8 ppb to a low of .70 ppb, depending on the well.
Walker has since put pressure on ADEQ to recognize this low-level contamination as leakage through the fractured bedrock which flows in a northwesterly direction from Aero to Rumsey.
Jim Fallin, ADEQ public information officer, contacted the Payson Roundup following calls to his department. Fallin wanted to reassure the people of Payson that their drinking water is safe and they will continue to work with town government to ensure its safety.
"ADEQ remains committed to working with the Payson Water Department, the elected government and residents to ensure their health and safety," Fallin said. "The samples taken are three magnitudes below the threshold limits. We are in the process of developing scientific data to determine what is going on."
If the Rumsey area wells require treatment, the tug-of-war between the Town and ADEQ will begin as to who is financially responsible. Walker feels strongly that the contaminant is a result of leakage from Aero, which would make it the state's responsibility. ADEQ wants to conduct further studies. Walker, however, has made a commitment to the council to "expend every effort necessary to ensure that a quick response treatment plan is in place, with or without ADEQ's participation" if it becomes necessary.
Walker has the full support and confidence of Town Manager Rich Underkofler.
"I have every confidence Buzz (Walker) will get this resolved expeditiously," Underkofler said.
Councilmember Dick Wolfe put a different spin on the water issue, stating he was disappointed that he had first heard about the contamination from a reporter, but felt the issue had been blown out of proportion.
"The level (contamination) is far, far below what people were saying," Wolfe said. "I think someone was trying to scare some folks."