Owners of small Valley business facing massive lawsuit

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PHOENIX - Above ground, you'd never know one of the largest groundwater contamination plumes in the country is lurking hundreds of feet below the surface.

It's called the West Van Buren plume, and is the reason the Roosevelt Irrigation District recently filed a $40 million lawsuit against 60 defendants.

Defendants include government agencies like the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, Maricopa County and the City of Phoenix, big businesses like Chevron and Shell Oil, and private companies like Willmore Manufacturing.

3 On Your Side visited the west Phoenix mom-and-pop which produces steel accessories for trucks.

“If we get a big judgment against us, we could go out of business,” owner Jeri Willmore said.

Jeri and Jay Willmore say they are victims and here's why:

The West Van Buren area plume stretches from 7th to 79th Ave. and from Lower Buckeye to I-10.

But Willmore Manufacturing is located at 30th Avenue north of Thomas Road which is about two miles outside of the plume's perimeter.

“So we're way north of where the plume is they're suing over,” Jay Willmore said.

In fact, we've learned the only reason they're included in the lawsuit is because of this survey released by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in 1989, a decade before the Willmore's even purchased the property.

“And when we bought it, we made sure that we did our due diligence,” Jeri said.

The Willmore's showed 3 On Your Side letters from ADEQ dating back to 1999.

The most recent letter is from July of 2010.

It states, “The Facility is outside the boundaries of the West Van Buren WQARF site remedial investigation. The Facility was not included in the four industrial surveys conducted for the West Van Buren WQARF site; is not, and has never been, considered a ‘facility of interest’ or a ‘facility reviewed’ regarding the West Van Buren WQARF site contamination.”

“We're still on the list, we're still being sued and we're still having to spend money toward that,” Jeri said.

3 On Your Side showed those letters to Lawrence Moore, spokesperson for the Roosevelt Irrigation District.

We asked R.I.D. to consider removing Willmore Manufacturing from the lawsuit, but that request was denied.

Moore says there are legal avenues in place to allow that to happen.

“I can tell you it is not the intent of this lawsuit to put anybody out of business,” Moore said. “The intent is to restore a precious resource.”

R.I.D. maintains its main concern is cleaning up the groundwater.

It provides irrigation water for farms in southwest Phoenix.

Moore says 20 of the district's wells have been impacted by the contaminated groundwater, and he says R.I.D. shouldn't have to pay to clean up a mess they didn't make.

“They didn't produce the contamination so they should not be expected to clean it up,” he said. “Those responsible for the contamination should be expected to pay.”

3 On Your Side also contact the ADEQ.

ADEQ Director Benjamin H. Grumbles said in a written statement:

"We support aggressive, innovative plans to clean up the contamination and avoid the courtroom drama. We've given a conditional approval of RID's ground water proposal and urge the many responsible parties to pitch in now to get environmental results tomorrow, not a decade from tomorrow. We've also been clear we don't endorse RID's litigation strategy. While it's their decision, not the State's, on whether to sue and who to include in the lawsuit, we continue to urge the District and the responsible parties to focus on benefiting the environment more than the lawyers.  Smaller, less responsible parties, such as Mr. Wilmore, shouldn't get dragged into the legal mess or stuck with costly fees. It's a matter of fairness. A lot more can be accomplished if businesses with little, if any, connection to the contamination, get excused or only have to pay a minimal amount, a fair share."

In a written response, the City of Phoenix says:

"Since the case is in active litigation, the city is not able to discuss it at this time."