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

Hoogstra told Martinsen that employees received only four to six hours of very basic safety training that he considered inadequate. "At Sitix, employees working in the etching department wear a small apron, a shield over their eyes and rubber gloves. At Motorola, the employees wear full protective clothing, two pairs of gloves and eye shields," Hoogstra told Martinsen. He claims that he brought up his concerns about protective clothing to management, but no changes were made.

Hoogstra also complained about exposure to unknown chemicals, labeled only in Japanese. "The [Japanese] trainer was evasive about identifying the chemicals and indicated the chemicals were used in Japan." Later, Hoogstra says he was able to identify the chemicals, Kemy 80 and shellac wax, which he said were hazardous air pollutants. He and his employees were asked to use the reactive substances in unvented rooms, and Hoogstra says he experienced headaches and an upset stomach. County inspectors also found drums of chemicals labeled only in Japanese.

Perhaps Hoogstra's most intriguing charge: that Sitix managers, knowing that their etch tools tended to release plumes (which they admitted to county inspectors), would shut down the tools when protesters showed up outside the plant, and tended to do etching at night when the plumes from the stacks couldn't be seen.

Hoogstra also told the county attorney's office that he harbors some negative feelings about Sitix. Hoogstra told Martinsen that his wife had fallen in love with another worker at the plant and the two are now divorced. He's also suing Sitix over his termination, which occurred over a dispute about a hamburger.

Hoogstra says non-Japanese employees are prevented from leaving the plant during their entire shifts. One day, fed up with the policy, Hoogstra says, he left the plant for a trip to McDonald's for lunch and was terminated for doing so.

Sitix declined to discuss why Hoogstra was fired.
Environmentalist Steve Brittle found out about Hoogstra'sdiscrimination suit and contacted him. Since well before the plant's opening, Brittle and a coalition of north Phoenix residents have fought Sumitomo and various government agencies after it was revealed that the wafer plant would be going in near homes--and near homeowners who had had no idea a plant using hazardous materials would be built only a mile from an upscale neighborhood.

In February, after hearing what Hoogstra had to say about the plant, Brittle sent a letter to Romley under the heading "Sumitomo Sitix/Possible Criminal Activity." In the letter, Brittle summarized Hoogstra's charges and claimed that Hoogstra told him "upper Sitix management acknowledged to the workers that they knew the plant could not operate in compliance."

Another anti-Sumitomo activist, Chris Klein, says Brittle's letter was apparently only one reason Romley felt it necessary to investigate the wafer plant. Klein says Martinsen contacted him last fall and told him that the county attorney's office was conducting a criminal investigation of the Sitix plant.

Still, Romley says he felt Brittle had oversold the county on what was transpiring at Sitix.

"Why did I blast him? A variety of different reasons. It wasn't just that he misrepresented what the particular person said. That by itslf wouldn't have done it," Romley says.

"I think he has taken advantage of that community out there, and I think he needed to be called on it," Romley says.

Romley also complains that Brittle has been irresponsible in his attacks on Romley's office, the timing of its lawsuit and the nature of its investigation.

Brittle, for example, tells anyone who will listen that the county's lawsuit against Sitix was filed to derail the planned citizen's lawsuit. By law, citizens must give 60 days' notice that a lawsuit will be filed and allow the government to take action. On February 6, the Citizens Environmental Awareness League, a group affiliated with Brittle, filed the required notice that it planned to sue the wafer plant in federal court. Fifty-nine days later, Romley filed his suit against the plant, thereby legally precluding CEAL from taking its action. Brittle saw it as a conspiracy by Romley to file a weaker suit for the plant's benefit.

"We knew [the timing] was going to be an issue," Romley says. "But the truth is we thought we were actually past that time line."

Romley says he filed the lawsuit when his investigation was finished, and its effect on the CEAL suit was purely coincidental. (Now that the county suit has been settled, CEAL plans to go ahead with its action, says member Chris Klein.)

Although Brittle did mischaracterize some of Hoogstra's claims, he accurately reflected the rest. But Romley can't look into problems with worker safety at the plant. That's a job for state OSHA, and so far no formal complaints have been filed against the Sitix plant, according to an OSHA spokesman.

Meanwhile, Steve Brittle has taken his campaign to have Sitix investigated criminally to the federal EPA. He says he'll be more careful this time about his charges.

Contact Tony Ortega at his online address:

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