Garbage Time

The nation's biggest garbage company is everywhere in Mobile, one of Maricopa County's smallest communities.

"Thank You Waste Management," reads a sign in front of the school, just above a message noting that the sign itself was paid for by Waste Management.

Headquartered 1,200 miles away in Houston, Waste Management is Mobile's main benefactor. The company built the Mobile Community Center, which contains little more than a billiards table, lavatory and meeting room. Waste Management also pays for community picnics and holiday parties. The company, locals recall, once sent Mobile kids to Disneyland.

All this is Waste Management's way of thanking Mobile for putting up with the largest garbage dump in Arizona. Located about a mile off Highway 238, the main road through Mobile, the Butterfield Station Landfill isn't obvious to the casual observer, save for a steady procession of garbage trucks that are the source of plastic bags and other debris stuck to barbed-wire fences and brush along the highway for miles.

Less visible is the potential danger from waste deposited at Butterfield, which takes more than a million tons of trash each year, including tens of thousands of tons from outside Arizona that other states consider dangerous -- including DDT-laced sludge from California and more than 10,000 tons of unidentified waste from Mexico.

(State officials, including Department of Environmental Quality chief Steve Owens and Governor Janet Napolitano's staff, refused to discuss this lack of regulation -- or potential health risks.)

Mobile, which is unincorporated and has fewer than 100 residents within its loosely defined boundaries, is a magnet for projects, mostly unrealized, that no one would want in his backyard. Since Butterfield opened in 1990, two other landfills have come to the area. Plans for an oil refinery and a hazardous waste incinerator have come and gone. There's been talk of a women's prison and high-voltage transmission lines.

But highest on the list of immediate worries is yet another landfill that would be built at the entrance to Mobile alongside Highway 238.

Neither of the other two dumps in the Mobile area poses a threat to Butterfield's business. One, which is immediately adjacent to Butterfield, takes only construction debris. The other, about 10 minutes away in Pinal County, is owned by Waste Management, which mothballed the dump shortly after buying it six years ago.

The proposed landfill is different.

Competing directly with Waste Management, owners of the proposed dump want to heap garbage for 60 years, until the pile is more than 18 stories high, as tall as Bank One Ballpark. The prospect has forged a strange alliance between Waste Management, Mobile residents and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With Waste Management quietly paying the legal bills, Mobile landowners and the NAACP are suing Maricopa County for approving the project. While census records show Mobile is predominantly white, dump opponents, noting that the area was homesteaded by blacks more than 70 years ago, claim this is a case of environmental racism.

Waste Management, the company that's made the lawsuit possible, has itself been accused of dumping on minorities in Mobile and elsewhere.

It's pretty clear that there isn't as much environmental racism going on here as there is straight-up capitalism, with Mobile residents serving as willing pawns in Waste Management's game. And there's no bigger pawn than the NAACP.

Where landfill operators and industrialists see empty desert with easy access to a highway and a rail line, Mobile residents see God's country, where land is cheap, the mountain views are magnificent and folks with modest means can settle down, raise a few chickens, ride horses and ignore any inconveniences that come from living more than a dozen miles from the nearest cash register.

A handful who still live without running water recognize they're on the edge of sprawl, with Phoenix 35 miles to the north and the Sonoran Desert National Monument one mile east. During the past few years, hundreds of houses have sprouted in nearby Maricopa, where a Bashas' is expected to open soon.

In short, civilization is arriving, with "Land for Sale" signs dotting the landscape and more buyers than ever. It's been a long time coming.

Terry Hudson, who's lived in Mobile all his life, remembers when no one wanted to come here, and the people who were here wanted to leave, for lack of jobs, lack of paved roads and lack of water.

Hudson, who cares for his aging aunt and mother while occasionally raising cattle, is one of the few remaining links to Mobile's past. His family arrived in the 1940s when there were dreams of creating a blacks-only town.

When Hudson was born in 1959, Mobile was still largely black, a place where African Americans could live in peace, provided they could handle the desert's harshness. That's certainly changed. Today, Hudson is often the only black person in the room during Mobile community council meetings. But he remembers the way things used to be.

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Bruce Rushton