By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
@body:In May 1990, the tiny town of Mobile--36 miles southwest of Phoenix--was one step away from becoming the southwestern train stop for hazardous waste from around the country. A deal to have Environmental Services Co., better known as ENSCO, run Arizona's hazardous-waste facility was seven years in the making. The Department of Health Services--which oversaw the project before DEQ became a seperate state agency--had been involved in developing a hazardous-waste-management program since 1977. In 1980, state legislators voted to officially put the agency in charge of finding a site for a state toxic-waste disposal facility and a private company to run it. The agency was charged with developing and promoting the facility, as well as regulating it. It would become DEQ's baby.
From the beginning, ENSCO got preferential treatment from state authorities. Toward the end of the bidding process in 1983, an official with the Department of Health Services informed ENSCO that it hadn't yet received a bid from any company to run the toxic-waste facility. The same official then flew to Dallas to pick up ENSCO's proposal just hours before the deadline. At the time, the Attorney General's Office raised serious legal questions about accepting ENSCO's bid in this fashion, but it later dropped its opposition, and the contract went through. That contract stipulated that the state would retain 2 percent of the toxic-waste facility's gross revenues, plus $150,000 a year. By 1987, the state agreed to shell out $5 million to pave 21 miles of road from Maricopa to Mobile; ENSCO only pitched in $1.5 million. DEQ was in the process of approving changes to ENSCO's original toxic-waste proposal, which only involved putting a landfill at the Mobile site. The final plan included three toxic-waste incinerators. By 1989, DEQ was in all the way. "The Department regards the permitting, construction and operations of the Arizona facility to be of the highest priority," a DEQ official wrote in a letter to ENSCO.
If everything went as planned, a public hearing in Mobile--set for May 7, 1990--would have been the last step before DEQ and the EPA granted ENSCO the final permits it needed to do a trial burn and become operational. ENSCO, which had begun construction on the incinerators in 1988, estimated it could have the facility running in six months. That was before environmental groups and Arizona residents mobilized. In the fall of 1989, environmentalists began to detail their opposition to the project. Environmentalists hit hard on ENSCO's spotty safety record at a plant in Arkansas: The company had recently been fined $100,000 for 19 violations at the plant, including failing to notify personnel in an affected area of a release of toxins, failure to conduct inspections, and failure to operate the facility in a manner minimizing the risk of release to the environment. At a plant in Tennessee, ENSCO was fined $50,000 for flushing PCBs from transformers without a permit.
By the month before the May hearing, in newspaper and radio interviews, local activists were drumming up support to oppose the project. In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Greenpeace and other local groups estimate they telephoned some 20,000 people, urging them to oppose the facility's construction and to attend the hearing. In a conversation with the Environmental Protection Agency, Greenpeace made it clear that it expected at least 200 people would attend the hearing. The EPA informed DEQ of its conversation with Greenpeace at least four days before the hearing. But DEQ claims it didn't learn until "the last minute" how many people would show up. Officials decided to set up additional chairs outside the hearing to accommodate the crowd, instead of postponing the meeting or holding the meeting in a larger facility.
In planning for security for the hearing, DEQ began making arrangements in April. In the DPS report, DEQ cited several incidents involving Greenpeace that led to its fear that environmentalists would act up. The most damning of those was a videotape of an EPA hearing in Casmalia, California, where Greenpeace demonstrated, picketed, blew whistles and prevented the hearing from taking place. Greenpeace leader Bradley Angel was there. "We gave the video to DEQ to help DEQ prepare for the hearing," says the EPA's David Schmidt. "Apparently, DEQ saw the video, got scared and overreacted and prepared for the hearing in a way we didn't expect." Schmidt said his office advised DEQ to have a contingency plan to hold the hearing at a larger facility at a later date.
Several DEQ officials viewed that tape, including hearing officer Timothy Barnes, the man responsible for running the meeting.
"I remember that tape being shown and some of the people in the room going, 'I wonder if this could happen at the Mobile public hearing?'" said DEQ assistant director Nancy Wrona.
Yet there was no violence at the California meeting, and no arrests. A later protest organized by Greenpeace in front of DEQ's Central Avenue headquarters, just prior to the hearing, was even less eventful. "They were very peaceful," according to Robert Piceno, a DEQ employee who arranged for building security.
But the video of the California meeting traveled quickly. Members of the Sheriff's Office got a copy from DEQ, and received photos of Greenpeace leader Bradley Angel and other activists who had chained themselves to construction equipment and a fence near the ENSCO facility. Law enforcement prepared for the worst. "The protest will involve disruptive activities designed to stop the meeting," Lieutenant Timothy Dorn wrote confidently three days before the meeting. About 25 commanders and deputies were assigned to the hearing initially; that number would later increase to 48. DEQ officials say they had nothing to do with determining how big a police presence was necessary.