Fire

Phoenix's negligence left hundreds sick from toxic fumes. It's only a matter of time before it happens again.

In 1989, the City of Phoenix stopped doing inspections of the Valley's industries. The Phoenix Fire Department was understaffed.

Despite serious problems in south Phoenix dating back into the 1980s, Arizona legislators have repeatedly passed bills to allow industries to report their own violations rather than submit to government supervision.

Some companies, though, clearly can't be trusted.

Fred Harper
The Central Garden fire of August 2000.
The Central Garden fire of August 2000.

In the last year, the Phoenix Fire Department has again begun inspecting Valley industries to ensure they are in compliance with hazardous-materials statutes. The department now has a 14-member team headed by a deputy chief that inspects Valley businesses.

But they are desperately behind in inspecting all of the city's industries. Environmental experts estimate it will take another five years for inspectors to hit all of the city's major hazardous-material sites.

The Phoenix Fire Department is also working on another critical loophole in its ability to fight hazardous-materials fires. The department is "one or two years away," Khan says, from having all the Valley's industries' hazardous-waste inventories documented in electronic files. Such files would allow firemen to instantly access company information, which would tell them what they're up against as they approach a fire.

Of course, that depends on the company telling the truth.

"We still badly need industry to tell us the truth about what they're storing," Khan says. "If they're lying to us, the whole system breaks down."

The state's Department of Environmental Quality also has much work to do to better protect Arizonans. The department's monitoring equipment is badly outdated; its hazardous-materials response team still clearly underfunded and substandard for a population this size.

A May 2001 review of the state's response to the fire, conducted by an outside environmental consultant, found numerous critical mistakes in the department's air-testing methods.

In particular, ADEQ failed to monitor for particulates and pesticides, and didn't monitor for deadly chemicals such as hydrochloric acid and nitric acid until the next day.

"In light of the sampling inadequacies," the report stated, "it is not apparent that [ADEQ officials] followed a standard operating procedure for catastrophic events like fires or massive chemical releases." If they "did adhere to standard procedures, those procedures should be reevaluated."

The report was also critical of health monitoring conducted by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

"It would have been useful for ADHS to survey [health] clinics for potential temporal increases in respiratory complaints and to continue monitoring the local hospitals for several more weeks."

The report continued: "While such follow-up work requires a sizeable investment of time and agency resources, it is, nonetheless, essential to understand the true health impacts of an event such as this warehouse fire."

Within the next year, though, residents of Maricopa County will be notified much more quickly and thoroughly if they are downwind from a chemical fire such as the one at Central Garden and Pet Supply. A new Community Emergency Notification System is currently being installed thanks to state funding won from a recent $2.5 million settlement from the chronic Valley polluter TRW, the subject of an extensive New Times investigation last year.

The automated telephone system will call every resident within the affected area, in both English and Spanish, and inform them to evacuate their homes.

"We believe it's a real step ahead in emergency response," says Patrick Gibbons, the spokesman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

ADEQ also will be providing medical testing to residents of south Phoenix as part of a settlement with residents who were injured by the Central Garden fire.

However, comprehensive chemical fire monitoring may still be years away. ADEQ officials will be asking for state-of-the-art chemical monitoring equipment in the next budget they provide to state legislators. But the equipment is expensive and, considering the current budget crisis, secondary to the department's more pressing goal -- keeping all its inspectors and other personnel, a staff that also is far leaner than for states of comparable size. At best, it will be three years before ADEQ has proper chemical fire monitoring equipment.

"We're looking at budget cuts that would mean people would be laid off," Gibbons says. "It is a very difficult time to be looking for equipment when you're faced with losing critical members of your staff."

As for Central Garden and Pet Supply, like chronic polluters before them, the company has run from the city now that it's done its damage. Scott Hanson, the company's spokesman, said the company is now shipping to the Valley from warehouses in California and other neighboring states.

"We're not there anymore," he says. "We're trucking everything into Phoenix."

For south Phoenix residents such as Flora Muldrow, the fact that Central Garden and Pet Supply is gone is little solace. For the past 40 years, she has watched a cavalcade of other irresponsible businesses move into her neighborhood. The names are different, but the intentions are the same. Do business as cheaply as possible, and to hell with the neighbors.

"My home is their toilet," she says. "And the city just allows it to happen.

"It's like we're nothing to any of them."

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