Space Invaders

Richard Schmidt points out his explosive neighbor, UPCO.
Jackie Mercandetti

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.

Goodrich, UPCO's parent company, wants to close a similar facility in California. Company officials say they want to consolidate redundant operations, but it's just as likely they're sick of dealing with California's increasing crackdown on perchlorate polluters. For example, Goodrich has already promised the state it will spend $4 million for perchlorate cleanup. That price tag is sure to grow as the full extent of the problem under Goodrich properties is realized.

Arizona is far behind California in the regulation of perchlorates and other rocket-fuel-type pollutants.

UPCO's plans for a Peoria site began meeting staunch criticism because the plant would be too close to the Central Arizona Project canal that carries millions of gallons of water to the Valley.

But Heidorn, UPCO's president, tells me his company gave up on the Peoria site after a change in company plans. The Peoria site, he says, was going to be used to manufacture products for automobile airbags. Goodrich, he says, has since abandoned that plan.

With the closure of the California plant pending and the rejection of the Peoria site, Heidorn approached Phoenix officials with a plan:

UPCO would bring 250 jobs from California if Phoenix officials would amend the city's general plan to better accommodate UPCO's operations (the site is currently zoned as residential. UPCO has had to receive variances to operate there since 1972). Also, UPCO wanted a 25-year lease from the state land department instead of the 5- and 10-year leases that have been in place since the 1970s.

"Otherwise," Heidorn says, "we would look to move to other states."

Ah, yes, that old chestnut. You can do the math. If Phoenix plays ball, the city keeps 250 high-tech jobs and gets to add 250 more. If Phoenix and the state don't play ball, Arizona would lose 500 jobs.

There's also a dark little secret at the heart of this deal. If UPCO left its chunk of state land, that land, according to the lease, would have to be returned to the pristine state it was in when UPCO arrived there in 1972.

This would pretty much entail digging a hole the size of the new Cardinals stadium.

According to the lease, UPCO would have to pay for the cleanup. However, what if such a job bankrupted the company? And what if UPCO successfully argued that it wasn't responsible for pollutants that weren't deemed pollutants when the lease began? The city and state could get stuck with some part of the bill as well as mountains of legal fees.

Even if UPCO paid for everything, the cleanup would be a major strain on the agencies charged with overseeing the work.

Internal city e-mails obtained by New Times suggest this is a major concern of city officials.

When asked what impact UPCO's staying on the property would have on any environmental regulations or cleanups, Rosanne Sanchez, a city environmental official, wrote back:

"Well, it certainly doesn't eliminate the environmental issues -- any contamination that is there now will remain and will have to be cleaned up whenever they vacate the property. Also, contamination could be uncovered, if ADEQ becomes involved in a Notice of Violation-type situation. The environmental risks, i.e., unexpected releases of pollutants, explosions, fires, etc., that are inherent in this type of facility remain.

"Since they will be staying," she writes, "our concerns go away for now; however, as you mentioned residential development is encroaching and as that continues to happen, any future incidents certainly can create concern among residents surrounding the site."

I find two aspects of this note infuriating.

First, the implication is that city officials feel they'd be better off dumping the UPCO problem on future generations. "Our concerns go away for now."

And considering this note was written in June, it's more than troublesome that Sanchez is saying, "Since they will be staying." The Phoenix City Council will not be voting on this general plan amendment until next week. The planning commission just approved the deal last week.

So much for listening to the public.

And other agencies have lined up to support -- or at least not object to -- UPCO's plan. Phoenix fire officials now say that since UPCO addressed all 37 violations found in the 2002 fire, they no longer object to the company's staying. Phoenix environmental officials say Heidorn has since addressed all their concerns. Heidorn, for example, has promised to enclose his hazardous waste burn pad and install equipment designed to monitor the contaminants under his company property.  

You can see why people like Rick Schmidt, Jenny Boles and numerous other UPCO neighbors feel like they've been sold down the river by their city representatives. Their response to Heidorn's promises: How can you possibly trust this guy now after three decades of violations?

"You just get a very strong sense that no matter what the evidence is, this deal is going to be punched through," Schmidt says. "It looks like everybody is in cahoots on this thing."

We'll see for sure if this was a done deal next week when city council members vote on UPCO's proposed plan to stay on the state land they polluted in north Phoenix.

I'm guessing the council, on the advice of the planning department, will slam the deal through. It'll just be too easy to keep a looming environmental catastrophe buried under the cloak of a couple hundred new "high-tech" jobs.

After all, this would be the easy thing to do. And too often in this city's history, that's been the only criterion that matters.

E-mail, or call 602-744-6549.

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