Space Invaders

All of a sudden, the City of Phoenix wants a chronic polluter to stick around. What gives?

The sheriff's deputies at the door told Richard Schmidt that he and his four kids had 10 minutes to vacate their home near Central Avenue and Happy Valley Road. It was the night of September 11, 2002, a particularly bad night to hear that something is threatening your home and family.

Along with about a thousand other residents of far north Phoenix, Schmidt and his children packed up quickly and spent the night on safer ground.

The dire threat that night was an explosion and massive fire at the Universal Propulsion Company (UPCO), which has become one of the world's top manufacturers of ejector seats for U.S. military aircraft. More than 3,000 pounds of rocket propellant were consumed in the blast and fire.

The next day, Phoenix Fire Department investigators began digging through the charred remains. In all, they found UPCO guilty of 37 fire code violations. The most serious violation: Investigators discovered more than 50,000 pounds of explosives that the company had failed to report to the fire department.

When companies don't document storage of hazardous chemicals, firefighters have no idea what dangers they'll face if they're called to fight a fire. Luckily, no Phoenix firefighters were injured that night.

This wasn't UPCO's first run-in with authorities charged with protecting the health and safety of Arizonans.

Besides two other fires at the plant -- as well as the death of two employees in 1981 -- UPCO has been cited for numerous violations by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

In 1984, the company was cited by ADEQ for 12 violations, including leaving drums of hazardous waste uncovered. In 1986, the company was caught dumping hazardous waste directly into a nearby wash. In 1987, along with 15 other violations, UPCO was found to be allowing lead toxins from its hazardous waste burn pad to leach into the soil. Surface soil near the burn pad was found to contain lead levels nearly 80 times higher than the federally allowed level. The next year, UPCO received 12 violations, five of which were repeat violations. During that visit, inspectors noted six different locations where hazardous waste was being released to the soil.

Throughout the 1990s, the company violated ADEQ regulations more than 40 times.

In 2002, even after the fire that drove Schmidt and a thousand other residents from their home, inspectors noted three more violations. ADEQ officials said that UPCO had failed to notify them that the company had resumed operations in the burned area and failed to provide ADEQ with a required incident report following the fire.

Besides breaking environmental rules, a 1999 study of the UPCO property showed perchlorate contamination to a depth of 59 feet.

Perchlorate contamination, the result of companies dumping rocket-fuel byproducts on their property, has forced the closing of more than 300 water wells in California, causing severe water shortages in several California towns.

You get the idea: UPCO bad.

And this is clearly how Phoenix officials felt about the company. In 1999, the company said it would be moving to a 723-acre plot in the boonies of Peoria. Several letters and e-mails from Phoenix officials around that time show that the city was quite happy to see this polluter leave town.

In 2001, when UPCO was asking for an extension of its lease on state land, Phoenix Fire Chief Alan Brunacini wrote, in a letter to other officials: "This letter expresses the Phoenix Fire Department's opposition to that (lease) renewal. The facility poses a threat to these neighborhoods."

Brunacini wrote a similar letter to UPCO in 1994. "Issues of concern include the possibilities of explosion, toxic releases, as well as environmental contamination. As this area continues to develop, a hazardous materials facility such as yours poses a serious risk to the public welfare."

In 2001, city planning director David Richert wrote that "the continued operation of UPCO at this location presents numerous land-use compatibility issues."

This is particularly true because the City of Phoenix has allowed a boom of residential building in the area. UPCO sits amid the city's fastest-growing residential corridor.

And many of those residents have built homes near the UPCO facility because of UPCO's promises that it would soon be leaving. After the September 2002 explosion and fire, UPCO president Mike Heidorn alleviated residents' fears of future explosions by telling them that UPCO would be completely moved from the property by 2008.

So, people like Jenny Boles felt comfortable moving into the area.

"I bought my home with the understanding they would be leaving," Boles says. "I wouldn't have bought it otherwise. Well, now, we're hearing that everything has changed."

Yes, everything has changed. All of a sudden, UPCO says it wants to stay on its land just north of Happy Valley Road for another 25 years. Not only that, it wants to expand operations on the site.

And, all of a sudden, city officials seem ecstatic to have this chronic polluter and time bomb sitting in the middle of the people of north Phoenix.

What gives?

Money, of course. And bragging rights. Universal Propulsions is technically an aerospace company, one of those ostensibly high-paying, high-tech industries Phoenix is working so hard now to keep and attract.

And UPCO officials are well aware that, on paper, this looks like a gem of a company.

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