This spring, a 10,000-gallon spill of wastewater and other mishaps at the Sumitomo Sitix silicon-wafer plant in northeast Phoenix worried local residents, many of whom had opposed construction of the plant so close to homes in the first place.
Sitix of Phoenix president Robert Gill tried to calm those fears, saying that such glitches were likely during the testing phase of a complex manufacturing plant.
Maricopa County did its part to reassure residents as well, hitting the company with surprise inspections in May and June. The county notified the company of three violations for not supplying required information, but claimed that the plant did not pose a health risk to the public.
In particular, the inspections, made public in July, found that the Sitix plant was not emitting more air pollutants than allowed under a county permit.
Only a month later, however, both conclusions--that the plant's mishaps were an expected result of its completion, and that the plant isn't exceeding pollutant levels--are in serious doubt. Instead:
* Sitix has submitted new information to the county, admitting that the plant emits hazardous air pollutants not allowed in its permit. The county is now considering whether to order a modification of the permit, which would necessitate a public hearing (and, no doubt, more public uproar).
* A former county environmental expert is questioning the county's ability to oversee the Sitix plant. Documents in county files indicate that the plant is violating EPA regulations, the expert says.
* Most alarming, a Sitix of Phoenix memo obtained by New Times shows that the company's management is concerned about acts of sabotage which have occurred at the plant in recent months. Police and county officials say Sitix has not informed them of those concerns.
* On Tuesday, County Attorney Rick Romley acknowledged that Al Brown, director of the county's Department of Environmental Services, had contacted his office regarding the Sitix plant. Romley, through a spokesman, confirmed that his office is conducting an investigation at the plant. But he wouldn't comment on the nature of the investigation or how long it would take. However, environmental activist Steve Brittle, who says he's been called by the County Attorney's Office as part of the inquiry, told New Times that Sitix is under investigation for intentional violations of its air-quality permit.
Repeated attempts to speak with company officials about pollutant emissions and sabotage at the plant were unsuccessful.
In March and April, a series of accidents occurred at the factory, including the April 12 spill of 10,000 gallons of wastewater which contained small amounts of hydrofluoric acid and nitric acid. Public records show that county environmental workers question Sitix estimates that the acids totaled less than a single gallon.
After the spill, Gill said in a press release that: "In the start-up of any manufacturing plant, you often run into technical problems in the early stages of operation. That is one of the reasons why we design redundant safety systems."
Privately, however, Sitix employees told New Times that company management was concerned that sabotage could be responsible in at least some of the mishaps.
In a July 8 memo to all Sitix employees, director of administration Paul Dombroski says that sabotage is occurring at the Sumitomo factory. Dombroski refers to incidents of theft and destruction "over the last few months" and asks that employees report unusual activity to their supervisors.
"It seems that the perpetrator is attempting to damage manufacturing equipment in order to slow down our manufacturing process. We have been fortunate to this point that these acts of sabotage have not resulted in injuries to employees," he wrote.
Phoenix police spokesman Mike McCullough says that Sitix has not reported acts of sabotage to the department.
Dombroski referred questions about the memo to the company's public relations representative, Suzanne Pfister, who did not return calls.
The day after that memo went out to employees, Sitix officials submitted new information to the county's environmental services department about three hazardous air pollutants coming from the plant--releases that hadn't been divulged before.
Sitix safety manager Erich Nolan told the county that by the end of July, emissions of the three pollutants, called glycol ethers, would exceed permit levels. But, in a July 11 county memorandum, environmental services employee Dan Blair wrote that Sitix had never mentioned the chemicals before.
"This material is currently exhausted to the environment without controls," Blair wrote in the memo to other county environmental department members. "I reviewed the permit application and could not find where emissions from this material are accounted for in the permit application."
Blair noted that adding the pollutants to the plant's county permit would not be a "minor" modification. That's an important distinction, because a "non minor modification" to the Sitix permit would require public hearings.
Given the vociferous opposition to the plant, that could result in a major headache for Sitix and the county. Brittle says that a coalition of residents will oppose granting Sitix a new permit. "Given their record of violating the permit they have, how can Sitix deserve a new one?" he asks.
County spokesman Scott Celley would say only that the environmental services department continues to mull over data released by Sitix, and that no decision about the company's permit has been reached.
Nearby residents continue to be concerned about the plant, and records show that they have made numerous reports of foul odors coming from the plant, as well as smoke of various colors coming from its smokestacks.
"The emission stacks are not smokestacks," states a Sitix publication sent out to neighbors of the plant. "The stacks do not and will not emit smoke. All emissions from the plant pass through effective scrubber systems which clean the air before being released from the building."
Despite those reassurances, however, residents have reported sightings of pea-green, yellow, gray and white smoke coming from the stacks.
Former county environmental expert Ela Kozak examined public documents submitted by Sitix at the request of New Times. She says that there's good reason for residents to question the reliability of the Sitix scrubber systems.
"There are EPA regulations which pertain to these types of emission control systems, and it's clear from these records that these EPA regulations are being violated," Kozak says, adding that evidence suggests Sitix employees are unfamiliar with proper operation of the scrubbers. She points to logs which are incompletely filled and which indicate that scrubbers were allowed to run dry, canceling their effectiveness.
Such breakdowns allow untreated emissions to leave the plant. One breakdown may have been captured when an amateur video maker filmed a plume of material coming from a stack on June 6.
Sitix officials told county inspectors that the cloud was only water vapor and resulted when a scrubber was superheated in a test of new equipment.
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"It's obvious that they don't know how to use those devices," Kozak says. "In case of releases, they have no way of knowing how much they've released." She points to letters between the company and the county, in which Sitix is asked to document emissions on a certain day, and can't because of a lack of records.
Kozak, who spent six years regulating businesses in California, is troubled by the poor level of oversight of polluters in Arizona. She suggests that Sitix is taking advantage of that laxness when it makes excuses for not submitting a detailed operating plan which is required under the county's easy regulations. The county cited Sumitomo for not complying with the rule. The company has since turned in a plan, but it has yet to be approved by the county.
"It looks funny that this large company has no idea that they need those kind of plans," she says. "The county should shut down the plant until they can prove they have professionals who will calibrate and monitor their emissions continuously.