Clearing the Air

The county attorney concludes the Sumitomo Sitix plant is not a public health threat, but a neighborhood effort against the plant continues

A highly publicized county investigation of environmental violations at the Sumitomo Sitix plant in northeast Phoenix ended earlier this month with the feeling that it was all much ado about nothing.

County attorney Rick Romley even loudly blasted environmental activist Steve Brittle for making accusations about the plant he couldn't back up.

The upshot: The county fined the Japanese corporation $330,624 for sloppy paperwork and patted itself on the back for imposing its biggest fine ever against an industrial polluter.

But the Sitix saga is far from over. What got lost in all the political hubbub over the winding down of the county investigation is this:

County environmental inspectors did document what appear to be permit violations, including excessive emissions at the plant. Sitix officials admitted to inspectors that they have had trouble with equipment.

Many of the problems alleged by Brittle and a former employee were confirmed; only a couple of points were misstated by Brittle when he urged Romley to investigate.

Now that the county lawsuit is ended, the neighborhood activist group that has been critical of Sitix plans to go ahead with its own citizen's lawsuit against the company--something it had been precluded by law from doing until the county finished its case.

And Brittle has asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to launch a new investigation.

County investigative files contain several reports in which inspectors describe the Sitix plant's troubles with visible plumes, chemical barrels labeled only in Japanese and rotten-egg odors coming from the plant.

So it's surprising that the only problem addressed in the county lawsuit pertained to the smells emanating from the facility. The fine was imposed, county officials say, because Sitix violated administrative rules by failing to submit required paperwork before installing new equipment, and not because the plant's emissions had exceeded air permit limits. (The rotten-egg smell, meanwhile, turned out to be a by-product of wastewater treatment, and, while not a permit violation, Sitix has agreed to eradicate it.)

When county inspector Rick Kelley toured the plant on November 13, 1997, he already knew that the plume coming from one of the smokestacks at the Sumitomo Sitix plant was not steam.

Operators at the plant had admitted to him that the vapor's low temperature meant that it couldn't be steam.

Kelley was one of three county employees visiting the plant that day to see if the silicon-wafer factory was complying with a county air-pollution permit. Sitix had told nearby residents that air scrubbers in the stacks would clean their emissions so well that they'd never be able to see anything coming from the stacks. In fact, the county permit prohibits Sitix from emitting visible plumes.

But last November, county inspectors could clearly see a plume. And when they asked what it was, Sitix employees said the inspectors would have to wait for Sitix engineer Frank Stephenson to answer the questions.

"Mr. Stephenson initially started out by addressing the plume as water vapor," writes Kelley in a report he prepared after the visit. "But after realizing that we had been informed differently, his discussion became more descriptive to the actual problems."

Kelley's inspection report seems to present evidence of a violation of the permit, while other county records, as well as the eyewitness accounts of a former employee, suggest that the Sitix plant is plagued by equipment problems and safety concerns.

Kelley reported seeing a plume of 30 to 40 percent opacity for nearly an hour. A permit violation occurs if emissions of at least 20 percent opacity are observed for at least six consecutive minutes, according to a letter Romley sent in February to Phoenix resident Sandy Farmer.

Stephenson, the Sitix engineer, eventually told Kelley that the cloud was actually ammonium nitrate and that the plant hoped to eliminate the chemical by using purer raw materials. The county's environmental services department says that ammonium nitrate is not a material regulated in the plant's air permit. But the cloud was visible nonetheless, and Kelley concluded in his report that he would follow up to make sure the plant reduced the emissions.

County records also indicate that Sitix admitted to inspectors that it's had trouble with some equipment emitting plumes, particularly during the etch process, when wafers are polished with chemical solvents.

Romley says his office considered detailed information including reports of visible plumes and concluded that no threat to public health exists at the plant. But he concedes the county's jurisdiction of Sitix is very narrow. His office can investigate only claims that the high-tech factory has exceeded pollution standards, and, if it has done so intentionally, seek criminal prosecution.

Romley says that's why his office couldn't look into other charges by former employee Richard Hoogstra that recently came to light. Hoogstra, who was fired from Sitix for leaving the site when he wasn't supposed to, says his nine years of processing silicon wafers at Motorola didn't prepare him for the kind of problems he saw in his seven months as a supervisor at the Sitix plant.

Larry Martinsen, one of Romley's investigators, interviewed Hoogstra on February 20. Mainly, Hoogstra described shortcomings in Sitix's spill response effort compared to the way Motorola handled possible spills. Hoogstra complained that Sitix employees lacked adequate spill training, proper equipment and appropriate protective clothing.

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