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Arizona failed to properly monitor groundwater pollution, report finds

By Jill Ryan
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Friday, October 1, 2021 - 10:53am

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for protecting the environment, but a new audit report says the agency has failed to perform many required tasks in monitoring groundwater for pollution — in some cases the neglect has been for nearly three decades.

The department’s director, Misael Cabrera, does not dispute the audit’s findings, but says the contamination levels, while high, did not result in danger. But the report says the issue is getting ahead of pollution before it ends up in the drinking water and causing harm.

Also, the agency has not developed standards for uranium — something it was first required to do 20 years ago.

“We haven't prioritized setting of standards and asking for money for setting of standards. But we have prioritized getting funding and asking for funding to address known problems," Cabrera said. 

From 1995 to 2015, 22% of the sites sampled by DEQ had arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking water standards and 16% had uranium levels that exceeded those federal standards.

The report says the Department stopped conducting ambient groundwater monitoring in 2017 because the sole employee who was doing that retired.

"However, the department did not have an explanation for why these responsibilities were not continued at that time, such as by hiring a new employee or transferring the responsibilities to other department staff,'' Auditor General Lindsey Perry wrote.

Cabrera says he hasn't asked Gov. Doug Ducey, who gets first crack at the agency's budget request before forwarding it to lawmakers, for more money.

"In the department, we have lots and lots and lots and lots of needs,'' he said.

Cabrera says it is true that the needs of every agency will exceed the resources available.

"It's hard to understand unless you're actually running a really complex state agency with over a thousand laws that have to be implemented,'' Cabrera said. "But the simple answer is, we prioritized other known problems.''

Only now, he said, in the wake of the audit findings, is he asking for a budget increase for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

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