Finally, a Crackdown on Polluters
Phoenix, while frantically trying to lure a giant semiconductor plant to Arizona, has levied a quarter of a million dollars in fines against ten polluting companies--among them an existing giant semiconductor plant--in an unprecedented crackdown.
The crackdown on industries that discharge hazardous wastes to city sewers was prompted by pressure from federal environmental officials and state activists. It includes consent decrees and out-of-court settlements requiring the companies, mostly high-tech manufacturers, to correct their violations. In addition to the ten companies fined, twelve others were notified that they are next in line to face stepped-up enforcement action, including possible fines and court-ordered cleanups, city officials say.
The biggest fine was against Motorola, the state's second-largest employer, which this month paid a $46,600 fine for repeatedly violating waste-discharge limits at its semiconductor plant on East McDowell Road. Other fines range from $43,900 against Bull HN Information Systems Incorporated to $5,665 levied against ITT Cannon. Most of the violations involve cancer-causing heavy metals, such as arsenic and lead, which are supposed to be virtually eliminated from industrial discharges. Once in city drains, the pollutants can interfere with sewage treatment and may end up in the Salt River as effluent from municipal treatment plants. Phoenix is fighting to keep the Salt River off an Environmental Protection Agency list of the nation's most polluted streams and to keep itself off a soon-to-be-released EPA list of cities with lax enforcement programs.
Michael Gritzuk, director of the city's Water and Wastewater Department, says this is the first time corporate polluters have been fined or taken to court by the city.
"Our policy has always been to enforce, but in a cooperative manner," Gritzuk says. "We have not heretofore enforced to the tune of fines and legal penalties."
Last year, however, investigators for the nonprofit Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest audited the city's files and found more than four hundred violations on which the city had not acted. "The city was simply not enforcing the program, despite a 1985 consent agreement in which they promised to do so," says Tucson lawyer David Baron, who heads the Center's environmental-law team. "Many of the violations involved hazardous-waste discharges more than double the allowable limit, and we found many companies with multiple violations. In not one instance had the city taken any enforcement action other than to require more sampling, except for once when they temporarily revoked a permit."
Baron says the Center audited the city's files after asking for a summary of industry compliance and learning one did not exist. "The response we got was `We don't have that and if you want it, you'll have to come get it yourselves,'" he says. "That immediately raised suspicions on my part because in any decent enforcement program you're going to keep a compliance summary at least covering the last couple of years."
The 1985 agreement settled a 1983 lawsuit brought by Baron to end toxic pollution of the Salt by the city's two sewage-treatment plants. The city's effluent had frequently exceeded federal limits for heavy metals or other pollutants.
Last September, following the audit, the Center notified city and EPA officials that it intended to file another suit to compel Phoenix to enforce its limits on industrial waste discharges. Shortly thereafter, Gritzuk notes, EPA inspectors visited Phoenix and found the city was not adequately enforcing its program. In April, the EPA ordered Phoenix officials to hop to it.
Compounding the pressure on Phoenix, a new policy began to take shape within EPA to reduce pollution from municipal wastewater-treatment plants. Long recognized by scientists as a major source of water pollution, public sewage-treatment plants have never been subjected to the same cleanup demands as have private industries that discharge directly into rivers.
Last year the agency told its regional officials to identify sixty cities with particularly bad records. Release of the list is expected before month's end, Gritzuk says, and cities on it are likely to face a federal lawsuit.
"Is the City of Phoenix one of them?" he says. "Possibly. We don't know yet, but with everything that's been done to date, such as the inspection and administrative order, it's likely we are on it."
It's the sort of distinction that could tarnish the city's "All-America City" label, and Phoenix officials admit they hope their recent reforms will help. "Our most recent information is that the EPA list has dwindled to forty," Gritzuk says. "Have we been dropped? That's possible, too."
As part of its new muscle-flexing, Phoenix published a legal notice listing "significant violators"--companies that have repeatedly violated discharge limits or reporting requirements--earlier this month. City officials, in an effort to increase the impact, even bought a half page of newspaper space to display the list in large type. "We're hoping other companies will get the message," says deputy city manager George Britton.
Amid the crackdown on high-tech polluters is Arizona's bid to lure U.S. Memories Inc., a high-tech consortium that wants to operate a $1 billion computer-chip factory that would create 2,000 jobs. Arizona is offering a choice of two sites, in Phoenix and Tucson, and reportedly about $50 million in tax breaks and other incentives to the consortium, which plans to choose a site in November. Phoenix and Maricopa County are offering about $7 million worth of roadwork, utility hookups and other freebies to U.S. Memories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Mayor Greg Stanton Calls for All Phoenix Cops to Wear Body Cameras
Mon., Feb. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:00pm
Thu., Feb. 18, 7:00pm
Fri., Feb. 19, 7:30pm
- Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Permits Geocaching Game on State Land
- How 20 Metro Phoenix Cities Got Their Names