By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Dan Huey's got the chiseled features of a frontiersman and the stomach to do a job nobody wants. He pumps your septic tank when it overflows, cleans out the grease trap of your restaurant and the sand trap of your car wash. In the first six months of this year, he sent 512,000 gallons of slop down the drain at the City of Phoenix's 23rd Avenue wastewater-treatment plant, and that's not counting the loads he hauled to a landfill north of town.
Huey and his wife, Patti, own one of 20-some pumping operations in the Phoenix area, and a small one at that. It's a local industry that moves about 22 million gallons of nonhazardous liquid wastes a year. The only places to dump the wastes are in a Phoenix city landfill at 27th Avenue, two Maricopa County landfills an hour's drive away or at designated manholes in Scottsdale and at 23rd Avenue. The manholes feed into the 91st Avenue treatment plant co-owned by the Sub-Regional Operating Group comprised of Phoenix, Mesa, Scottsdale, Glendale, Tempe and Youngtown. The Hueys' options are shrinking.
The 23rd Avenue wastewater-treatment plant belongs solely to the City of Phoenix, though half of the septage--material pumped from septic tanks--and grease it takes comes from outside the city limits. The plant doesn't treat the hauled wastes; it merely provides a conduit into the SROG system by testing the truckloads and pumping them downstream to 91st Avenue. At 91st Avenue, the septage, like regular sewage, is separated into clean water that runs into the Salt River and into sludge that is dried and sold as fertilizer or buried in a landfill. The Phoenix Water and Wastewater Department feels it is losing money on the service and is tired of, well, taking everyone else's crap. As of September 1, the city is closing its 27th Avenue landfill, doubling the waste-hauler's fees for loads generated within city limits and tripling fees for loads from outside. Further, it has threatened to discontinue the service altogether by the end of 1993, which could force the waste haulers to travel out of town. As the county rushes to sniff out contingency plans for its considerable waste products, the cities of Glendale, Tempe and Mesa turn up their noses and wash their hands of the matter. The haulers feel stuck in the muck.
"The waste is out there," says Patti Huey. "Nobody wants to do anything to get rid of it." Where will it go? According to Pat Gardner of American Pumping, another waste hauler, "The defecation's going to hit the rotary."
Haulers speak of trailer-park managers and homeowners in poorer neighborhoods who already hook sump pumps to their septic tanks and spray the contents over the backyard rather than pay the $120 to have it disposed of safely. They note that some restaurant owners already dip their own grease traps and dump the contents in the garbage can. They know of haulers who have dumped loads down manholes in the dark of night, and they complain that when they try to report these abuses to the authorities, except for Phoenix, no one listens. As the cost of hauling increases and the availability of treatment facilities decreases, these temptations will be greater. Even the county's acting director of solid-waste management, Jerry Sudbeck, warns, "If something's not done, some of that material's going to get spilled on the desert."
The problems will be exacerbated if the haulers have to travel out of town to unload after the 1993 closing of 23rd Avenue to waste haulers. So far the alternative destination for grease and septage is an evaporation pond at the county's New River landfill on I-17, which Dan Huey describes as "a hole in the ground with a leaky liner." It has no facilities to wash down trucks, no aerators or skimmers to keep the grease from scumming over the pond and limiting evaporation. The haulers are threatening a September 1 visit en masse to prove that New River's six-million-gallon capacity is insufficient. "When it overflows its banks, someone will have to answer," says pumper Paul Miller. And though New River's evaporation ponds are monitored, the Maricopa Association of Governments admits in a 1991 memo that the ponds "create a potential for groundwater contamination." The county intends to upgrade the New River facility, but it will take money and planning. As Sudbeck notes, "This came upon us kind of quickly."
There is also a debate as to whether evaporation ponds like the one at New River are the best solution. The city's own consultants, in fact, recommended putting septage through the wastewater-treatment plant.
The Phoenix water department disagrees: Because septage has 50 times the bacteria concentrations as the raw sewage that arrives at the treatment plants through sewer pipes, the plant operators worry that they may have trouble meeting stringent new federal effluent standards if they "get a bad load." Although that has never happened, it could hamper the goal of "total reuse--rendering what comes out the other side of 91st Avenue clean enough to drink and pumping it back into the aquifer.
The city, however, is keeping its options open. Within the multimillion-dollar upgrading of the 23rd Avenue treatment plant is a $1.6 million facility for receiving nonhazardous liquid wastes, including holding tanks designed to segregate septage until its contents can be tested and verified and then fed into the system in a digestible flow. When pressed, the water department admits that the new facility could be used in an as-yet- unformulated county project that would provide transfer stations in all corners of the county where haulers could drop loads. The wastes would then be carted to landfills by county trucks or subcontractors. If the county can't scrape up the money, the city could use the new headworks to process wastes generated within city limits, and the rest of the towns can go flush themselves.