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"It looks like no man's land here," says Alisa Gray as she peers through the razor-wire fence at 21st Avenue south of McDowell Road. On one side of the street, storage tanks for an asphalt plant drip and percolate; I-10 whizzes overhead, held up by giant pillars. Beneath the expressway: garbage and discarded chemical drums. "But that doesn't mean someone should just do something else here," she continues.
"Something else" is a soil-recycling plant that Diversified Contractors wants to set up to vaporize and burn off gasoline and oil from soil contaminated by leaking underground storage tanks. When the surrounding neighborhoods caught wind, they protested the pollution that such a plant might bring to their already industrialized neighborhood. Gray lives within a half-mile of the proposed facility; there are houses within sight of it.
On July 7, Phoenix City Council unanimously enacted a one-year moratorium on permanent, thermal-soil-remediation facilities, as the plant is called. Diversified Contractors responded August 2 by filing a lawsuit against the city, claiming the city zoning department had led it to believe it could operate the facility in any area with heavy industrial zoning, A-2.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, meanwhile, has not issued a solid-waste permit to Diversified, not because DEQ is concerned about health hazards, but because the agency doesn't want to get involved in a city zoning battle. Thermal remediation is a sound technology for recycling oil-tainted soils, DEQ argues. But should it be done in a heavily populated area?
"I think it would be more appropriate to do it in areas of less population," says John Godec of DEQ, "but, in fact, there are, indeed, mobile sources all over the Valley and all over the county to do just that."
Diversified Contractors has operated a portable thermal-remediation plant for more than a year, generally transporting it to the scenes of contamination. Soil is loaded into a large drum, then heated with a direct flame to turn the oil into gas, which is captured and burned off.
Because many jobs are too small to merit moving the equipment, Diversified wanted a permanent site to haul in smaller loads of 50 to 100 tons. It found investors to buy the site at 21st Avenue and McDowell, and planned to set up the portable plant next to an 80-by-100-foot building in which it will store contaminated soils before processing.
Neighborhood activists heard of the proposed plant in late May; 17 neighborhood organizations came together to hire an environmental consultant to look into Diversified and the recycling process.
The consultant, James Lemmon, who used to work for DEQ, worried about adding to the already thick cloud of exhaust and industrial pollution that hovers over the area. "If we're talking about gasoline, this might be a great technology," Lemmon says. "But if it's also a waste stream of solvents, waste oils and heavy metals, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. This system is designed to put these things into the air stream; then you have to take them out.
"Their proposal did not call for using the detection equipment and sampling methodology to properly screen for these things," Lemmon points out. "If the waste oils are not properly screened, the process won't do anything toward the destruction of PCBs; it won't take care of the heavy metals or leaded gasoline. . . . Everybody breathes the air."
Furthermore, Lemmon raised concerns that the contaminated soil would be shipped into the facility in uncovered trucks; he questioned whether contaminated dust would blow into the neighborhoods and whether the weight of the trucks would damage the roads. He worried about seepage of oil into the water table, about provisions for flooding and about the chance of the plant exploding.
It did not go unnoticed by the neighbors that a railroad spur passed the prospective plant site. "This is a facility that has enough capacity that, if you do the multiplication, at 220 tons per hour, 22 hours a day, you would run out of soil from Phoenix gas stations or [other] contaminated sites within six months," says neighborhood activist Brian LeCort. "By the time you treated every potential site in Arizona, you would only be one year in operation. Why are they sinking this much money into it? Because California and other states have very strict regulations concerning this type of waste. It is cheaper to bring it here."
Tim Wright of Diversified Contractors denies any immediate plans to import contaminated soil from outside of the state. "It's not that we've never thought to expand our market, but in order to bring dirt in by rail to that site would easily require a quarter-million-dollar improvement, money that we don't have." Wright also denies the allegations that the soils would be untested. "This is a business that is very heavily regulated. DEQ pays a lot of attention to it, the county air-pollution-control people pay a lot of attention to it. Any oil that is accepted is going to have to be screened by qualified engineering firms."
But DEQ engineers express concern about the vagueness of Diversified's proposal. As late as July 1, "there were no engineered plans and specifications in the file," says James Walters of DEQ. "They had filed a narrative describing what the facility would be, and a conceptual plan showing location of many of these features. The original planner asked for plans and specifications. They said they didn't want to do that until they submitted preliminaries to the city and found out what they can and can't put there."
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