Clearing the Air
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.