GASOLINE ALLEYDOWN BY THE OLD MILLSTREAM, IT STINKS
This is not how Art and Lynn Shupe envisioned their life in Arizona's White Mountains.
"Since all this happened with the company, we haven't had any life," Art Shupe says. "My place is about destroyed. We had this beautiful spring--clear as a pin--and the fish were pretty. The water was bluish. My grandkids used to pull out crawdads. We put in lots of fruit trees. My animals had the whole yard to live in. Then they leaked all this gas and diesel and stuff and ruined everything."
Shupe is a retired copper miner who works security at Stone Forest Industries in Eagar, about 210 miles northeast of Phoenix in rural Apache County. He has had a front-row seat for one of Arizona's least publicized and most expensive toxic-chemical disasters.
The Shupes' backyard smells like a gas station and their once-pristine waters look like Alaska's Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez passed through. A sign on the couple's padlocked backyard fence warns passers-by "KEEP OUT" and "NO SMOKING." That's because the poisoned soil can ignite with a match.
Until recently, in fact, the Shupes' backyard was officially deemed a "fire hazard," declared so in March and again in April by a state fire marshal. "How many people have ground that could burn up just like that?" asks Lynn Shupe, who sells fabric at an Eagar department store. "This isn't funny. This is sad."
STONE FOREST INDUSTRIES is a multinational paper company which had a net income in 1989 of $285.8 million. About 280 people work for the firm in Eagar, making it the town's largest employer.
The position Stone Forest occupies in Eagar may explain the imperious manner in which the company has handled the terrible situation with the Shupes. The couple's flammable soil and stinking creek result from the underground leakage of at least 25,000 gallons of gasoline and still-untold thousands of gallons of diesel from three of Stone Forest's storage tanks.
Stone Forest claims it discovered the leaks in August 1989. But Art Shupe says that as early as March 1989 he told a mill supervisor of horrendous gas smells in his subdivision, just below the sawmill and storage tanks.
Stone Forest never reported a thing to the proper authorities, court records indicate, and didn't act on the leaks until after those authorities learned of them from other sources.
The leaks haven't been big news in the Round Valley area that includes the adjoining towns of Eagar and Springerville. Reaction by the Eagar Town Council has been muted at best, with little public discussion. That's not surprising, considering Eagar's company-town nature. The outgoing mayor works for Stone Forest, and everyone in Round Valley knows how powerful the firm is.
"Stone has a tremendous impact on our economy," says Eagar town manager Will Wright. "We're a logging and power-generating community, and Stone is a large part of that."
The leaks were kept so quiet that Stone has so far managed to avoid criminal or civil sanctions. Assistant state attorney general Dave Ronald, who prosecutes environmental malefactors, says, "We never heard of this incident at our office until [Attorney General] Bob Corbin got a letter a week or so ago," Ronald says. "We plan to look into it." And, while toxic-chemical spills like Love Canal have been the stuff of screaming headlines elsewhere, just one story, and a puff piece at that, has appeared in the local White Mountain Independent.
Since the September 7 story, the paper hasn't reported about the $1 million civil lawsuit filed in January by the Shupes and their neighbors, Donald and Catherine Butsko, against Stone Forest Industries.
Despite the best efforts of almost everyone, the big spill finally did become public knowledge last August, after the state's environmental people got wind of it.
The suit, filed in Maricopa County Superior Court by attorney Steven Cheifetz, alleges that Stone Forest was negligent "in the dumping of toxic waste materials, so that such materials were allowed to seep into the earth and water aquifers and to contaminate them with toxic chemicals."
Though Stone Forest has denied those allegations in court pleadings, the firm continues to keep its corporate mouth mostly shut. Says Gary Yantis, regional timber manager for the Timber Resources section of Stone Forest:
"We do have a story to tell, but I've been advised not to tell it at this time because of our pending lawsuit. Nothing was done intentionally. We're very concerned about this for several reasons. We live here too, you know."
The company has spent several hundred thousand dollars--it won't say exactly how much--to try to clean things up. Although Stone Forest says it has sealed the leak, massive amounts of gasoline and diesel are still working their way slowly through the ground toward the Shupes.
The final cleanup total will certainly be in the millions. No one seems to know how much surface water and groundwater have been polluted, though numerous tests of area drinking-water wells so far haven't turned up petroleum contaminants.
These days, the state's Department of Environmental Quality is overseeing Stone Forest's cleanup of the big leaks, which has proved to be an uphill struggle.
"Unfortunately, because of the severity of the leaks, it hasn't been an immediate corrective action," says Gail Clement, who heads a hydrology unit at DEQ. "The facility [Stone Forest] that caused the discharge is responsible to protect the surrounding population . . . Often, however, someone from a regulatory agency needs to prod a company into action."
The situation has left almost everyone frustrated. Bob Humphrey, the deputy state fire marshal who declared the Shupes' backyard a "fire hazard," expresses disgust over the whole affair.
"There's a lot of bad things going on around up here that nobody seems to know about," Humphrey says. "I'd hate to buy a little place by a little creek like the Shupes did, and then have gas and oil flowing into it."
ART SHUPE TOSSES a small rock into grimy, acrid Water Canyon Creek from which he used to irrigate his extensive vegetable garden. He's a stocky guy with a ready smile and a down-to-earth manner that sours momentarily as he scoops up some polluted dirt in his backyard.
"We worked real hard on this property, and we were proud of it," he says with a grimace. "This was going to be it for us. We've never given no one any trouble. Now, I just don't know what's gonna happen with our life."
It's been a long haul from rural Chihuahua, Mexico, where he was born 57 years ago, to Eagar, Arizona, and a toxic backyard. Art Shupe moved to Utah after he was graduated from high school in 1952. After a farming stint in Idaho, he worked in Arizona's copper mines for 22 years.
The Shupes have lived since the early 1980s in Eagar's Green Valley Acres neighborhood. The mobile-home subdivision is located in the shadow of Stone Forest's sawmill.
In late 1988 or early 1989, Art Shupe says, his then-pregnant daughter Mary told him, "`Dad, there's something wrong with that stream. It stinks.' You know pregnant women--they can smell anything. I didn't smell it at first, and then it started hitting me. Then the diesel bubbles started rising to the surface."
Shupe says he informed Stone Forest plant protection supervisor Dave Mills in the spring of 1989 (his daughter gave birth that March 26) that something was wrong down by his old millstream. On three different occasions over the next several weeks, Shupe says, Mills took samples of water from Shupe's land. The backyard smelled like one giant gas pump.
"I was never told any results of those tests," Shupe says. "I kept asking what was going on, but I didn't get any answers."
(Court records show Stone Forest admits Shupe complained to Dave Mills and to shop supervisor Dan Johnson about an "odor of gas or diesel in Water Canyon Creek." However, the firm alleges Shupe made his complaint in July 1989, not that March. The records don't indicate whether Mills admits to testing the Shupes' water for contaminants.) Holly Walker, who until recently lived next door to the Shupes, recalls that in March 1989, "I smelled strong diesel vapor in the air at our residence. One day, these men were going up and down the creek. I went out to inquire as to what they were doing. They pointed out the oil blobs floating on the top of the water."
The fuel stench worsened early last summer, and the Shupes had to close their windows to keep the smell out. That proved inconvenient.
"Everyone around here just keeps their windows open at night, that's our air conditioning," Art Shupe says. "That's one of the best things about living here. But with us, it's either close the windows or smell the gas."
But Art and Lynn Shupe aren't the complaining types. They didn't raise a stink even after Stone Forest's Dave Mills allegedly took the water samples from the backyard creek but didn't give them the results. By last July, the goldfish and the crawfish in one of the ponds were sick. "I took the fish out one day and put them in five-gallon jugs because they were just kind of laying there," Art Shupe recalls. "They got lively as could be again, and I put them back in the pond. That was my mistake. One was dead within hours, and the rest were dying." In early July, the Butskos--the Shupes' other next-door neighbors--contacted the town of Eagar about the awful smells. Town engineer Gary Munn looked into it, and he phoned the state Department of Environmental Quality on July 19. A state investigator wrote in a July 27 report, "Seepage in backyard of citizen may contain a solvent that killed fish and crawdads in pond . . . Liquid stream did have a `petroleum' odor and an oily sheen was noticed on a stagnant portion of the stream."
His preliminary findings revealed a high level of toxic petroleum hydrocarbons, namely benzene and tolulene in the water.
The wheels of Arizona's government bureaucracy, however, grind remarkably slowly, even when the public's health may be endangered. Records indicate it took the state's Emergency Response Team almost a month to investigate the potential hazard after the DEQ learned of it. And Stone Forest certainly wasn't scurrying about trying to find the source of its massive leaks.
DEQ records indicate that by July 27, Stone Forest had "placed fills from the sawmill about 200 feet uphill from the seep," in an effort to stem the leakage. Apparently, company officials knew that something was amiss, though they didn't test their storage tanks until August 11, two weeks later.
Stone Forest finally admitted that above-ground, unleaded gasoline storage tanks had been leaking badly. The company's inventory records from 1988-89 revealed that at least 25,000 gallons of unleaded were unaccounted for. On August 23, Stone Forest also "discovered," according to the DEQ, that two underground storage tanks--one containing gas, the other diesel--were also leaking.
By state law, Stone Forest had to issue a notice informing area residents of the contamination. The company's August 24 release was predictably benign:
"A leak occurred in an underground fuel line. When we discovered the leak, the line was immediately replaced. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality assisted us in our investigation of the environmental impact of the leak. We are implementing the corrective measures recommended by DEQ which will ensure that public health and safety will be fully protected."
It took the local White Mountain Independent until September 7, 1989, to print its one and only story on the leak. The article quoted Stone Forest Industries logging manager William Stewart as saying, "We don't know for sure when the leak occurred. We became aware of it on August 11, and replaced the line on August 12."
The paper soft-pedaled the situation, never interviewing the Shupes or the other neighbors who had been complaining for months about gasoline smells and water pollution.
"I couldn't believe how fast everyone kind of forgot about this," says Art Shupe. "It was like nothing ever happened."
DEPUTY FIRE MARSHAL Bob Humphrey went over to the Shupes this March after the couple and other Green Valley Acres residents kept complaining about nagging gasoline odors. It was almost a year since the first time Art Shupe says he complained to Stone Forest officials about the smell.
"I was real surprised to hear about this mess," Humphrey says. "Mr. Shupe and I did some tests for soil volatility. I determined that the soil was very volatile, a real fire hazard."
Humphrey's volatility test was to pile up some dirt from the Shupes' backyard and set it on fire. On March 22, the marshal cited the Shupes, and informed Stone Forest Industries what was going on.
"It wasn't that I wanted to cite the guy who was the victim of all this," Humphrey says, "but the point was to get rid of the darned hazard."
Humphrey cited the Shupes again April 16, noting that "no progress has been made to bring this property into compliance." After that, Stone Forest apparently did a better job of covering most of the foul-smelling water ponds, while allowing the potentially explosive vapors to escape.
Humphrey noted in a May 4 report that the Shupes' yard "appears to at least temporarily be in compliance" with the fire code. Still, the marshal remains unconvinced that the problem is permanently resolved.
"When I got involved in March, I left it up to the perpetrator, Stone, to take some action and eliminate the problem," Humphrey says. "That hasn't been done yet. The problem is still there, though they are, as I said, `temporarily in compliance.'"
Last week, however, New Times put a match to a shovelful of the Shupes' backyard dirt. It ignited immediately and remained lighted for minutes.
Stone Forest continues to pump contaminated water from the Shupes to a 250,000-gallon treatment tank up the hill. The bad water is being treated with hydrogen peroxide. The current plan is to discharge some to the sewer system and to reinject some of the "repaired" water back into the aquifer. And once the gasoline stops seeping into the Shupes' backyard--no one knows when that will be--Stone Forest will have to dig out tons of contaminated soil.
The Shupes are discouraged by the events of the last year or so. They can't use their backyard anymore. They keep their dog, Patch, penned in a small space, as well as their geese, ducks and quail. The company has offered the couple $45,000 for their place, a few thousand more than a recent street appraisal--an appraisal, by the way, which doesn't account for thousands of dollars of vegetation and other improvements to the property.
"I don't want to sell, but we don't know what to do," Art Shupe says. "When it heats up and the smell starts getting in the house, we may have to go over to my daughter's and pay room and board, and just come back here and feed the animals. We didn't ask for this, and we don't know what to do."
The backyard smells like a gas station and its once-pristine waters look like Alaska's Prince William Sound after the Exxon Valdez.
Everyone in Round Valley knows how powerful Stone Forest Industries is.
"I'd hate to buy a little place by a little creek like the Shupes did, and then have gas and oil flowing into it."
"I went out to inquire as to what they were doing. They pointed out the oil blobs floating on the top of the water."
The wheels of Arizona's government bureaucracy grind remarkably slowly, even when the public's health may be endangered.
The fire marshal's volatility test was to pile up some dirt from the Shupes' backyard and set it on fire. They can't use their backyard anymore. They keep their dog, Patch, penned in a small space, as well as their geese, ducks and quail.
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