THE POLITICS OF GARBAGENOTHING LIKE A HUGE TRASH HEAP TO SPRUCE UP A RIVERBANK
Imagine a garbage dump the size of a small lake. Into its great belly would tumble not only common household waste, but asbestos, petroleum-contaminated soils, pesticide containers and the sludge from sewage-treatment plants. By the time its useful life was over, this landfill would contain enough refuse to fill 93 stadiums the size of Sun Devil Stadium.
Now imagine that it is located on the bank of the Valley's second-largest river, where record-setting floods have burst out of the channel twice in the past 15 years. Imagine further that this monumental waste cemetery sits astride a vast underground salt dome made unstable by years of salt mining and other industrial uses.
Between these two structures--the gigantic landfill and the fractured salt deposit--is an aquifer from which most of the west Valley draws its drinking water.
Finally, imagine as operator of the landfill a company that has been listed among the nation's worst environmental stewards by publications as diverse as Fortune magazine and Newswatch, a pro-environment periodical.
Now you know why Linda Timberlake is so upset.
Timberlake lives across the Agua Fria River from Browning-Ferris Industries' proposed landfill on the bank of the river 550 yards west of her suburban Peoria neighborhood. "I think it's an insane idea," Timberlake says. "It would be 130 feet above our drinking-water source, for heaven's sake. They can talk all they want about putting in liners and dikes, but nothing is going to stop Mother Nature."
BFI claims it can vanquish any and all of the natural hazards associated with this northwest Valley site with technology and the know-how that comes from being the nation's second-largest waste handler.
But Timberlake, an office worker turned activist, is not alone in doubting this claim. Like the tip of an iceberg on a collision course with an oil tanker, Timberlake's anger is only the most recognizable sign of the opposition to BFI's so-called Cholla landfill. The proposal scares many experts as well, including county flood-prevention officials, Maricopa County supervisor Carole Carpenter and a host of other community leaders experienced in the drawbacks of building garbage dumps next to rivers.
The conduct of state environmental officials evaluating the proposal causes as much concern as the landfill itself. Two weeks ago, more than 200 individuals and groups demanded the postponement of a public hearing scheduled for August 28. Not only has the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) granted preliminary approval to the dump, the critics complained, but DEQ has also withheld or failed to identify key technical documents on which its decision is based.
The history of riverside landfills in this area is not a pretty one. From one end of the Valley to the other, embankments are periodically littered with decaying garbage after washouts. Groundwater beneath existing landfills has been contaminated by chemicals that somehow made their way into the trash dumped into overlying pits.
The history of BFI is even less reassuring.
WHEN IT COMES to the environment, a company's standing on the United Way thermometer isn't a terribly reliable guide. A more effective approach might be to look at a company's compliance with environmental or business-ethics laws, for instance, as DEQ is required to do when considering a permit application. You can examine cases in which a firm has been the target of criminal charges or civil suits, or look for it on the federal roster of Superfund sites.
Apply any of these standards to BFI, and the answer is eye-popping: BFI's rap sheet is so long that not even the company itself seems capable of compiling a complete list. The record it has submitted to DEQ is as easily described by weight as by number of violations. Nor is BFI's list, its third effort to comply with the state law requiring full disclosure by environmental applicants, complete.
BFI claims to have made "significant efforts" to round up information from its 400 operating districts. But the company makes no mention of its most recent legal battle, a nationwide class-action suit brought by customers alleging price-fixing and antitrust conspiracy, which BFI will pay $30.5 million--the most expensive legal settlement in its history--to end.
Accusations that BFI engages in antitrust and price-fixing activities are nothing new--the company has been hauled into court at least ten times over these issues in the past decade, including five cases in which authorities won criminal convictions.
In a 1984 civil suit brought by Vermont garbage hauler Joe Kelly, BFI salesman Richard Rudolph testified that after Kelly refused a buy-out offer, Rudolph was ordered to "put him out of business. Do whatever it takes. Squish him like a bug." The jury convicted BFI and awarded Kelly more than $6 million in damages, a decision BFI fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the verdict.
BFI officials have pleaded guilty or no contest to criminal price-fixing and antitrust charges in Ohio, Georgia and New Jersey. Only one of the criminal antitrust cases, and the Vermont civil action, are listed in the compliance record submitted to DEQ.
The most recent suit against BFI, brought by a group of Pennsylvania customers, set out to prove that both BFI and industry giant Waste Management Incorporated have engineered a nationwide conspiracy to establish monopolies and fix prices, a claim BFI officials reject.
"If you know anything about how this company is run, the thought of one masterminded conspiracy is ludicrous, to say the least," says John Potwin, BFI's associate general counsel at its Houston headquarters. "We do acknowledge there have been isolated instances in which individual employees engaged in illegal activity--Atlanta, Toledo, those were criminal cases. No doubt about it, we did it, the officials involved pled guilty or nolo [contendere] and paid fines."
But those cases were aberrations, not company policy, Potwin contends. The company decided it was worth $30.5 million to settle the class-action suit only because the potential cost of losing was so high. "The court certified as a class every one of our customers from 1978 through 1987, so they had hundreds and hundreds of thousands of those people," Potwin explains. "If there was even a 1 percent chance of us losing, the judgment could have been hundreds of millions of dollars.
"I know for most people it's hard to believe we're willing to pay $30 million when we did nothing wrong, but it was a horrible position to be in," Potwin says. "We felt we could win the suit, but if we lost, it could substantially impair the ability of the company to do business; and that's exactly how our senior management people looked at it."
BFI now claims it has adopted an "obsession with compliance concerning all laws and regulations," and even-tougher internal rules. At the same time, the company continues to describe itself--particularly in its antitrust defense--as a loosely organized federation of family operations.
Critics charge that neither version can be trusted, and say BFI's environmental record is no cleaner than its business practices. BFI was ranked sixth among companies with multiple sites targeted for Superfund action in a 1990 list published by Newswatch.
The company, which amassed $3 billion in revenues last year, has fared little better in the business press. Fortune magazine, in a 1990 article on "socially responsible" investing, put Browning-Ferris and rival Waste Management Incorporated in the "worst" category of companies whose actions harm the environment.
BFI recently announced it will get out of the hazardous-waste business because it has been hit with so many penalties. "The hazardous-waste business accounts for 2 percent of revenues, none of our earnings and most of our headaches," CEO William Ruckelshaus said in announcing the decision. (Ruckelshaus, who back in 1970 was the first director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, has been the BFI boss since October 1988.)
BFI contends many of the environmental problems imputed to it actually were caused by the previous owners of sites it bought. "We've spent millions cleaning up problems that other people caused," says Ric Green, BFI project manager for the Cholla landfill.
However, rival Waste Management, though twice as big as BFI, is not even among the top 20 companies with the most sites on the Superfund list. "Waste Management has done a lot more to check out sites before it bought them than BFI," says an industry observer. "If BFI did its due diligence, they wouldn't have bought problems for themselves."
While its hazardous-waste sites are a headache, BFI claims its 106 solid-waste landfills cause only a "handful" of problems.
"Today's well-engineered, sanitary landfills are a far cry from the open dumps of previous decades," BFI says in one brochure in its public relations package. "Those dumps, where waste was burned or simply piled up, often became unhealthy eyesores which attracted insects and rodents. In general, they were unlined and unmonitored."
But records from a dozen states in which BFI operates landfills show that the company continues to be plagued by old-fashioned problems like odor, wind-blown trash and fires at some dump sites, as well as occasional violations of newfangled requirements to monitor groundwater. Residents near a BFI garbage dump in northern Massachusetts recently organized a protest around the theme "BFI stinks."
Of all the questions BFI's record raises, perhaps the most unsettling are those concerning BFI's alleged use of landfills to further anticompetitive schemes. The plaintiffs in BFI's most recent antitrust case repeatedly cited evidence in previous BFI cases linking the company's landfills and market monopolies.
In 1984, for instance, a Texas waste company called Johnson Disposal accused BFI of bribing a state senator to help defeat the competitor's proposed landfill development, while raising fees charged to independent haulers at BFI's own landfills. In that suit, BFI officials admitted providing a dumping-fee discount to its own haulers that was not given to smaller, independent companies.
Johnson alleged that it had been run out of business by BFI's practices. BFI admitted no guilt, but settled the lawsuit for $5.2 million. BFI contended that the "bribe" was, in reality, a $25,000 legal fee paid to the state senator's law firm for legitimate work. A Texas grand jury concluded there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with bribery, Potwin says.
"For the record, we wouldn't want to fix prices," Potwin says. "Our policy is not to discriminate on landfill fees. BFI trucks pay the same as everyone else. Many years ago, it's true, in our business there were lots of allegations about antitrust combines, but they don't exist anymore. Ruckelshaus wouldn't put up with that kind of thing for a second."
Ric Green, who has headed the Cholla project for nine months, asserts that BFI is unfairly accused of putting profits first. "We're not there just to make a buck," Green says. "We do contribute to the betterment of the Earth."
In the private waste-hauling industry, however, the advantage to a landfill operator of being 12 miles closer to customers than the competition translates into millions of dollars.
"The reason BFI is willing to take the risks associated with the Cholla site is that it is a gold mine," says county supervisor Carole Carpenter, whose district would include the landfill. "No company would ever put this amount of money into a landfill unless it expected a phenomenal profit.
"The point is, the risk that is acceptable to BFI is not the same as what is acceptable to the rest of us."
IF ALL GOES as BFI has planned, the Cholla landfill will never be seen or sensed by anyone but Timberlake and her handful of neighbors during its intended 30-year lifespan. There will never be a reason for anyone else to even notice its presence along a one-mile stretch of El Mirage Road from Olive Avenue south to Northern Avenue.
"This will be a state-of-the-art facility," promises Ric Green. "My commitment to protect the environment goes beyond the professional level; it is personal as well."
The entire parcel, now the site of a large sand and gravel operation owned by Union Rock & Materials, would be shielded from view by a 15-foot earthen berm, Green explains. Engineering drawings show the berm dotted with native vegetation; the only clues to the presence of the landfill operation would be a paved entrance and sign along El Mirage Road, its western border. On the dump's eastern side, the Agua Fria River embankment facing Timberlake's subdivision would be protected from floodwaters by rip-rap, big chunks of rocks piled four-feet thick along the entire length of the site.
BFI officials prefer the term "landfill" to "garbage dump," but whatever the name, they are proposing to assemble one of the largest concentrations of solid waste in metro Phoenix. The landfill itself would cover 170 acres of the site, extending 110 feet below the surface of the land and rising, at completion, 60 feet into the air. Union Rock, the current owner of the site, would continue excavating sand and gravel until it has dug a pit big enough to hold 2.6 billion cubic yards of garbage, the landfill's planned capacity.
The landfill, though described as a facility for municipal solid waste, would also accept a host of so-called "special wastes" with toxic and cancer-causing properties, BFI acknowledges.
In fact, "special wastes" is a semantic tool, recently added to Arizona law, to describe wastes that are classified as hazardous in other states--namely California--but not here. These include asbestos, automobile shredder fluff, automobiles, commercial and industrial waste, incinerator ash, pesticide containers, petroleum-contaminated soils, tires and large household appliances.
The rising cost of disposal in California has created a lucrative business among Arizona companies willing to handle these wastes, but BFI's Ric Green adamantly denies that asbestos and other special wastes would be dumped at Cholla. "We absolutely, positively have no plans to accept out-of-state waste," Green asserts.
To bring the relevance of all this into focus, the landfill's pit floor would hover less than 50 yards above the west Valley's regional aquifer, which supplies 37 drinking-water wells within a mile of the site and many more beyond that.
The dump's position above a crucial groundwater supply is but one of three problems with the proposed site. In past years, flooding along the Agua Fria soaked the Union Rock operation, located more than 100 feet above where the pit floor would be.
But these dangers represent minor engineering challenges compared with the third major hazard--land subsidence.
From the air, the land near the Cholla site appears striated; the clusters of lines are fissures, superficial clues to structural collapses originating deep underground. The fractures, once started, carry enough force to crack concrete building foundations. Groundwater pumping is the best-known cause of land subsidence, but in the west Valley there is another source.
The entire area is underlaid by a gigantic geologic formation called the Luke Salt Body, deposited in the millenia when the Sonoran Desert was evolving from a subtropical sea. The presence of the formation is no secret; it has been both a commercial source of salt and, in other spots, a storage tank for liquid natural gas piped in by utilities.
Now honeycombed by long industrial use, the salt dome contributes an enormously unpredictable element to the land-subsidence problem. "As a geologist, I've been concerned about the integrity of that site for years," notes Jim Lemmon, a Phoenix consultant who has critiqued BFI's plans for the Maricopa County Flood Control District. "With fissuring, you can't control the activity, you're just reacting to it. All you can do is to mitigate its effects, and then only on the surface."
BFI, however, believes it has come up with the answers to these problems, and any others that might arise at the Cholla site. In a series of position papers, part of the company's expensive public relations campaign to sell its idea, BFI argues that technology can overcome these hazards.
"The Cholla landfill has been designed with multiple safeguards to protect the area's natural resources," BFI writes. "It will incorporate $23 million in `overlapping' or `redundant' environmental safeguards."
BFI says it will not accept liquid wastes, federally regulated hazardous wastes or radioactive wastes. Even if polluted material does percolate through the garbage, the company believes it has designed a liner system that will prevent leaks. The pit would be lined with a layer of compacted clay and a sheet of synthetic material similar to that of plastic garbage bags. Between the two liners, monitors and a network of pipes would detect and remove any leachate (the percolated pollution that collects at the bottom of the pit). To protect the landfill from subsidence, the company has agreed to place a plastic net called a "geogrid" beneath the other liners to keep them intact if a geologic fracture develops at the site.
BFI says the landfill's height at closure, although equal to a six-story office building, would be minimized by gently grading the slopes out to the edges of the site.
Until then, the landfill would provide the northwest Valley with a needed service, says Ric Green, whose previous assignment for BFI was to develop a landfill near Denver. "Our stance is that a good, environmentally safe landfill is needed in the county," Green says.
"In the next few years, many of Maricopa County's landfills will reach capacity and/or be closed," the company says in a publication entitled "Why Do We Need the Cholla Landfill?"
To listen to BFI's exhaustive arguments, one would never know that Maricopa County, particularly the northwest Valley, has no lack of existing or planned landfill capacity. Someone less than fascinated by the topic of solid waste might overlook the fact that Maricopa County just opened the Northwest Regional Landfill, a site big enough to handle the area's garbage-disposal needs for 50 years.
The county spent $200,000 searching for an environmentally safe site for its landfill. The county's engineering consultants considered the area around the Cholla site--and rejected it because of its proximity to the Agua Fria and to fissuring that has cracked pavement, buildings and homes in the vicinity.
The Cholla site was also nixed by a citizen advisory panel appointed to represent the county and communities in the northwest Valley, which examined a dozen or more sites before choosing a location south of Wittmann for the regional dump.
County experts weren't the only ones to consider--and reject--the Cholla site.
Well before BFI announced interest in the Union Rock site, Waste Management Incorporated--BFI's prime competitor both locally and nationally--gave it the once-over and turned thumbs down. "We have very strict internal standards for where we site landfills," explains Jim Teter, Waste Management's regional vice president. "Our engineering group would not support the development of a landfill there because of its proximity to existing landfills with environmental problems and the close presence of the river.
"We also felt the area had sufficient landfill capacity because of the county's new Northwest Regional Landfill," Teter says. (Waste Management chose instead to stick with earlier plans to build a landfill near Mobile, 50 miles southwest of Phoenix, Teter adds.)
The Cholla site even caused qualms among BFI's corporate-level technical experts, confirms a former project manager. "One of the geologists at headquarters was unhappy about the site because of subsidence in the area," recalls Les Schoon, who left BFI to join the engineering firm of Dames & Moore in Phoenix. "Because it is a relatively unknown science, we faced the difficulty of proving there wouldn't be subsidence.
"We couldn't sell it to headquarters, so we had to protect against it," Schoon says, referring to the addition of the geogrid to design plans.
Schoon, like his successor Green, exudes confidence in BFI's ability to engineer its way around problems. "They wouldn't do it if it wasn't safe," Schoon says.
Green goes even further, saying BFI's landfill would be "head and shoulders" above any other in the vicinity--including the county's new dump. "I'll argue with anyone that we are miles better than the Northwest Regional Landfill," he asserts. "We're one of only two landfills in the county, Waste Management being the other, that will operate with a double liner and a leachate collection system."
This is true. The county landfill, which relies on a compacted-clay liner to prevent seepage, does not employ "optimal" pollution-prevention technology as defined by DEQ. But neither would BFI, which is proposing pollution protections considerably less stringent than what DEQ describes as the best available. The optimal safeguard is a double synthetic liner and a double leachate collection system, according to DEQ policy.
The county's new landfill does, however, have certain advantages not enjoyed by the Cholla site, maintains county supervisor Carole Carpenter. "Unlike Cholla, the county landfill is not located adjacent to a major river, or in an area of known geologic instability," Carpenter says. "The citizens who chose the county site didn't trust liners. They didn't trust technology.
"They looked for and believed we had found a site that wouldn't impact people if something did go wrong."
The metropolitan Phoenix area has had a lot of experience with landfills on riverbanks, none of it good. Supposedly floodproof dumps have washed out; landfills supposedly closed to hazardous waste have been found to contain all sorts of toxic chemicals. Even dumps protected from washouts have polluted groundwater. Indeed, such pollution has been discovered at virtually all existing or former riverside landfills in the county.
At least two sites, the City of Phoenix's 19th Avenue landfill and the county's Hassayampa landfill, are on the federal Superfund list for groundwater pollution. Officials concede there is no possibility the dumps will ever be dug up and moved; there is no place to put them, even if the money was available. The city and county have spent millions devising remedies, and say the best they can do is monitor the pollution and try to pump it out if it creeps too close to a drinking-water well.
BFI's critics contend that, despite the company's promised engineering wizardry, it is lunacy to consider putting another dump next to a river. "There is no reason, logic or benefit other than BFI's economic interest to site a landfill next to a riverbed," says James Derouin, head of the Phoenix Environmental Quality Commission. "The Cholla landfill stands for the proposition that Arizona has learned nothing from the desecration of the Salt River."
GIVEN A PROPOSAL fraught with so many apparent pitfalls, why is BFI pushing its Cholla landfill so aggressively? And why does BFI's cheering section include DEQ--the state agency whose purpose is to protect the rest of us from environmental nightmares?
In fact, the Cholla site violates every criterion for landfill siting set forth in DEQ's official "guidance document," the policy bible by which the agency is supposed to make regulatory decisions. DEQ policy cites five conditions that make landfill development "inappropriate": areas within a 100-year flood plain; with shallow groundwater; already devoted to urban uses; near existing or planned residential development; or near airfields where a concentration of birds might threaten aircraft safety.
In addition to being located in a flood zone and over potable groundwater, and surrounded by urban development, the Cholla site is across the street from land slated for intensive residential, commercial and industrial development by the corporations that own it. And the landfill, a potential magnet for birds, would be closer to the flight path of Luke Air Force Base than BFI's planned Queen Creek landfill in the southeast Valley was to Williams Air Force Base.
BFI claims it dropped the proposed Queen Creek landfill in response to concerns from Williams officials that birds might be a hazard to training exercises. But the same is not true for Luke, maintains Ric Green. "Cholla wouldn't endanger Luke fliers because they are experienced and don't spend as much time practicing takeoffs and landings as the Williams pilots," he says.
Its own siting criteria notwithstanding, DEQ announced on July 8 that it intends to issue the key approval BFI needs to proceed with Cholla, a permit certifying that the department does not believe the dump will endanger groundwater purity. The decision followed more than a year of deliberations inside the agency, and was one of the last regulatory acts by an official of the Mofford administration, former DEQ director Randy Wood.
"Very frankly, DEQ has not done its job," county supervisor Carpenter says. "It has required inadequate information in response to legitimate concerns raised about this proposal, and has shown bad faith with the public by choosing the last week in August to hold a public hearing, when many people are either still out of town or are preoccupied with getting their children ready for school."
Despite DEQ's long review, the draft permit contains incomplete information, and was not available in public libraries for up to a week after the public-review period started, prompting critics to cry foul. In response, the agency canceled the August 28 hearing and says it will be rescheduled in September. However, DEQ went ahead with plans to hold an informal hearing August 27, a move that Cholla opponents claim was politically motivated.
"A lot of people will show up and voice their concerns and leave there thinking they've stated their opposition for the record, when in reality there will be no record kept of anything said at the meeting," Steve Brittle, a researcher with Don't Waste Arizona, predicted before the meeting.
The DEQ decision disappointed opponents but did not surprise them. In early June, DEQ officials assembled a memo addressing the many issues expected to be raised by opponents and giving the agency's responses. If nothing else, the document illuminates a pattern of thinking that, like that of BFI, reflects unwavering confidence in the ability of engineers to prevent harm to the environment.
For instance, DEQ resolves its worries about the site's flood-plain location by this reasoning: "The City of El Mirage as the approving authority, supported by a review by the Army Corps of Engineers, approved the flood-bank protection which effectively moves the site out of the 100-year flood plain."
DEQ insiders say, further, that the die really was cast long ago when Wood directed his underlings to allow BFI to "make its case" for technological solutions despite the obvious factors disqualifying the site. "BFI's application was so ripe it should have been denied a year ago, but Wood didn't talk to the staff. He just talked to Mofford's office and they said to give BFI a chance to makes its arguments," the DEQ source says.
Wood did not return repeated telephone calls from New Times. He has since left Arizona to head Nebraska's state environmental agency.
New DEQ Director Ed Fox has the power to reverse his predecessor's decision, but gives no indication that he will. Fox neither defends nor criticizes the preliminary decision, saying only, "I still have some concerns and I'm not sure they've all been addressed [by BFI's proposed design]."
BFI's own promotional material includes a full-color pamphlet entitled "Professionally Managed Landfills" that says, "Choosing the best site for a landfill calls for highly skilled engineers and hydrogeologists. These specialists look for areas where natural clay deposits and other structural features will best protect underground water reserves . . . ."
Asked what natural advantages recommend the Cholla site, Green cites climate and depth to groundwater. "The site gets a low amount of rainfall and the groundwater table is 130 feet below where the bottom of the landfill would be," Green says, as if these qualities are rare in Maricopa County.
The Cholla site enjoys one big plus besides low rainfall and a deep water table. Within the impoverished town of El Mirage, where it would be located, the proposed landfill is popular. "The other thing we take into consideration is public sentiment," Green says. "The idea that we were invited into an area to site a landfill is almost unheard of."
In fact, relations between the company and El Mirage are so warm that former vice-mayor John Garza last year headed a statewide voter initiative aimed at overturning recent state legislation tightening landfill requirements.
(The initiative drive was funded entirely by BFI, to the tune of $500,000, much of which went to pay professional signature-gatherers, according to state election-finance records. The proposal, which appeared on the 1990 ballot as Proposition 202, was defeated by a wide margin.)
In fact, the Cholla landfill is the progeny of flooding problems a mile upstream at the old El Mirage landfill, which plagued the town during years of inaction by DEQ and its predecessor agency, the state Department of Health Services' environmental services branch. El Mirage finally solved its problem by promising to provide the dump operator, the late Ken Boyce, with an alternative site if he would close the old dump, which is polluting groundwater as well as creating a flood hazard.
Boyce, by that time entangled in lawsuits with both the town and DEQ, then cut a deal with BFI and Union Rock, explains Les Schoon, who headed BFI's Cholla project at the time. Boyce squeezed the council to approve the Cholla landfill, promising in return to close his own dump and drop a lawsuit he had brought against the town for alleged breach of promise.
BFI admits it paid Boyce an undisclosed amount of cash for his part in securing the city's approval. "Boyce really only made enough money to close the old landfill, although the amount would seem like a lot on paper," Schoon recalls.
While Boyce played the heavy, BFI courted El Mirage, which has a high proportion of Hispanic farm workers, with promises of jobs and six-figure tax revenues. The company dispatched Spanish-speaking political consultants, who in turn hired local people at $12 per hour to circulate petitions in support of the project. When the city council voted on BFI's zoning permit in March 1989, BFI's "grassroots" supporters presented 530 signatures in favor, compared with 435 signers on an opposing petition.
Linda Timberlake contends, however, that the petitions don't begin to encompass the depth of opposition BFI is generating with its proposal and its tactics. The waste-handling industry is familiar to the point of boredom with critics like her, and coined the term NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard") as much to dismiss as to characterize them. "There's opposition any time you try to site a landfill," Green says. "It's a normal occurrence." (Not necessarily, critics counter. Waste Management zoned and constructed its new Butterfield Station landfill, near Mobile, with almost no public opposition.)
Those opposing BFI, however, include local environmentalists, corporate land owners in the vicinity and the Maricopa County Flood Control District. The City of Peoria has passed a resolution opposing the landfill, as have leaders in two other communities cited by BFI as potential beneficiaries of the Cholla dump, Youngtown and Litchfield Park.
El Mirage councilmembers, led by Garza, have dismissed the opposition as being politically motivated. BFI's Ric Green agrees, and contends that Carpenter and other county officials are more worried about economic competition than the environment. "When you have a county official as powerful as Carole Carpenter, they can rally great forces in opposition," Green says. "A lot of the controversy we're dealing with is strictly an economic competition between us and the county landfill."
Carpenter counters that BFI is double-crossing both the citizen siting committee that chose a regional landfill and the voters who rejected the BFI-backed initiative in last fall's election. "The citizens as a whole spoke out when they defeated Prop 202, which was specifically designed to allow landfills like Cholla," Carpenter says. "It's pretty hard to make people believe in a regional, citizen-based approach to solid-waste disposal when one company can flout that process at will."
What if BFI is right? What if engineering can prevent groundwater contamination through flooding, subsidence or liner leakage? "Sure, they could be right," Carpenter concedes. "They could also be wrong, and I don't think anyone out there depending on that water wants to take that risk, especially based upon BFI's record."
"I know for most people it's hard to believe we're willing to pay $30 million when we did nothing wrong," a BFI official says.
"The point is," says Carpenter, "the risk that is acceptable to BFI is not the same as what is acceptable to the rest of us."
"We absolutely, positively have no plans to accept out-of-state waste," BFI's Ric Green asserts.
To listen to BFI, one would never know that Maricopa County, particularly the northwest Valley, has no lack of existing or planned landfill capacity.
BFI's prime competitor gave the Cholla site the once-over and turned thumbs down.
The metropolitan Phoenix area has had a lot of experience with landfills on riverbanks, none of it good.
"Very frankly, DEQ has not done its job.
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.