'They Wanted to Keep It Hush-Hush': City of Phoenix Still Coy on South Mountain Dumping

Ray Stern
Activist Jerry Van Gasse near a structure built from some of the homebuilder's excavated material donated to the park last year.
Outdoor activists still hope to unearth more facts about the large delivery of rock and debris in South Mountain Park/Preserve by a homebuilder last year that city of Phoenix officials authorized without a paper trail.

Jerry Van Gasse, an activist who's part of a group of park advocates and lawyers concerned about the dumped material, said they intend to keep pushing to hold the city accountable, and that the situation could yet end up in court.

The city drew criticism last spring after park users noticed when more than 150 dump trucks came through the Central Avenue entrance of the 16,000-acre park over a period of several days, depositing tons of debris that had been excavated by Maracay Homes from a nearby housing development under construction.

No record of authorization for the March 2020 delivery exists, and nearly a year later, the city remains coy about who approved it.

The material was dumped in huge mounds and alongside roads not far from the park entrance in what seemed a haphazard fashion to some. The activists claimed that the material contained residue of petrochemicals, but city officials deny it's contaminated.

City leaders consider the case closed. The Parks and Recreation Department said through a spokesperson that the delivery from Maracay had been long-planned, that the material was clean, and that by now it has all been dispersed throughout the park and used for building erosion-control structures.

Parks officials view the gifted dirt as a win-win scenario. It was offered for free, and it was just what the park needed for its erosion-control plan, according to the city. In media interviews last year, officials said the dirt from the construction site at Dobbins Road and 12th Street, adjacent to the park's boundary, is the same kind of dirt in the park and therefore perfect for use as fill material.

Representatives for Maracay, now Tri Pointe Homes, say they saved money by taking the fill to the park instead of the standard procedure of paying another company to take it to a landfill.

click to enlarge The parks department used material from the homebuilder's site for ground cover and replanting in South Mountain Park. - RAY STERN
The parks department used material from the homebuilder's site for ground cover and replanting in South Mountain Park.
Ray Stern
"Tri Pointe Homes removed a large quantity of native material from the development site during the grading operation and a small portion of the total was provided at no cost for the city’s use at South Mountain Park," the company said in a statement to Phoenix New Times last week. "Tri Pointe Homes typically retains a contractor to remove excess material resulting from the grading of development sites."

The city insists the deal was proper, but officials acknowledged that approval of the dumping should have had a more transparent paper trail, and that the city plans to make changes.

"The department is working to develop a formal process for how it would receive materials like this in the future," said Gregg Bach, Parks and Recreation spokesperson, earlier this month.

Councilmember Carlos Garcia, whose district encompasses South Mountain Park, had been assured by former acting Parks Director Tracee Hall Crockett that the issue had been resolved, said Garcia's chief of staff, Adriana Garcia Maximiliano.

"While this shouldn't have happened, the Parks Department has created a new policy to make sure it doesn't happen again," Maximiliano said. "The policy will be going to the Parks Board in the near future."

She clarified that neither "dumping without a clear policy" nor depositing the material "on a site where it would alarm the public" should have happened.

Differing Details

There are a few problems with the city's "all's well that ends well" line. Among other things, the city gave information to New Times this month that contradicted information it gave to the activists in August. And although the city says no material was dumped in a wash, Van Gasse's group claims some of the material was dumped in two desert washes in the park — a claim seemingly backed up by a New Times' photo.

Van Gasse said he believes the city violated state and federal environmental laws with its action. An avid hiker and school nutrition coach who has been at the forefront of several notable park issues in the past, Van Gasse was among the park users who witnessed the dozens of dump truck-loads last March. He quickly went into action and learned that the dirt had come from a construction site near East Dobbins and 12th Street. On behalf of the group, lawyer Thomas Stoops sent an email on April 16 to Alonso Avitia, head of the Parks department's Natural Resources Division, asking if the delivery had been authorized and if there was a usage plan. Avitia got back to him the same day, saying Maracay had contacted the city about the material.

"We did authorize and schedule the opportunity to receive dirt, sand and rock with the intent to assist with erosion, berm and off roading prevention projects," Avitia answered the same day. "A usage plan for a variety of project [sic] is intended throughout South Mountain Park."

click to enlarge South Mountain Park/Preserve is one of the largest municipal parks in the country. - CITY OF PHOENIX / FACEBOOK
South Mountain Park/Preserve is one of the largest municipal parks in the country.
As implied, the city didn't have a usage plan at that time, at least anywhere on paper. Nor did it have records of anyone authorizing the delivery. The park advocates' suspicion begins with that odd lack of evidence.

"They do work orders for a nut and a bolt," Van Gasse said of the city parks department.

In a May 20 email, in response to a request under state public records law, the city provided the group with a map showing where in the park the material was to be delivered. That was apparently the only written plan for the operation the city then had.

After being pressed for more detail, and following a July 19 article about the dumping in the Arizona Republic, the city told the group in an August 5 email that Maracay representatives visited with South Mountain Park staff about the delivery idea in mid-February, and that a week later, on February 20, city staff went to the construction site "to evaluate the materials." The delivery to the park was then scheduled for March 17, 2020, the city said.

But someone in the group eventually realized that the date of August 19, 2019, could be seen on the city's one-page usage plan. It appeared that date had been "redacted," Stoops told the city in a November email on behalf of his activist clients, noting that the date "was much earlier than represented."

In an email to New Times from Bach, the city agreed that planning of the dirt delivery had actually occurred on or before August 19, 2019. There's no other record of the earlier planning, either. To Van Gasse and another lawyer helping him, Steve Brittle of the environmentalist group Don't Waste Arizona, the timing is important because it means that the city had plenty of time to test the material for toxic residue.

Back in July, Avitia reportedly told the Arizona Republic that the city's Office of Environmental Programs had conducted a test to ensure the materials "wouldn't be harmful to the park," the article states. "The test determined the materials can go into the park, but not in the washes or river bottom, so ... they'll be staying away from washes."

It sounded from the article like the test occurred before the dirt was dumped in March. But test results obtained by the activists show the testing for the city — conducted by SGS of Houston — occurred on April 28, more than a month after the dirt was delivered. Asked about this, the parks department spokesman said the material wasn't dispersed within the park until after the test. But Brittle and Van Gasse say the test was conducted on soil at the construction site, not on the material put in the park.

Brittle, in an October 4 letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, claimed that the test showed that some petroleum contaminated soil (PCS) was found, which the EPA later denied.

The group also complained to the state Department of Environmental Quality, which sent an inspector to the park on October 9. In a field report, Inspector Anthony Stone noted that he observed the berms and erosion-control structures made from the Maracay material. The material "was clean and free of visible solid waste contamination." It had "no odors resembling" PCS. Stone declared the site to be free of deficiencies.

The EPA referred Brittle's request for help to Kaoru Morimoto, manager of the EPA's Region 9 Hazardous Waste and Chemical Section Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division. Morimoto told Brittle that the materials "appear to have been managed." Brittle replied that he didn't consider that an "acceptable investigation" had occurred." Morimoto wrote back: "I understand that the material was determined to not be PCS based on the attached analysis and managed on-site."

Morimoto didn't return a message from New Times.

Brittle said he believes the city is playing a "shell game" and he's still concerned that the material dumped and moved to various sites in the park hasn't been properly tested.

The 'Re-Dumping'

Van Gasse theorizes that the city only fashioned a plan to do something with the material after Maracay's dump and the publicity that resulted. The city records his group obtained don't contradict that idea.

Following records requests from the group that began in March, the city released maps showing the erosion-control plan only in July. It's unclear when that plan was developed. But following a 3TV/CBS 5 report on September 3 which shows the material still piled up on park roads, city staff moved it to various spots within the park. Some of the rocky fill was used to create raised beds near ramadas, with native plants re-planted in them. In another spot, the fill covers the ground in an unnatural, flattened layer.

"There's more damage from the re-dumping," Van Gasse said.

Egregiously, according to Van Gasse, parks workers dumped the material in two washes in the park that carry water after storms. New Times sent the Parks department a photo of what appeared to be material dumped into one of the washes.

click to enlarge Some of the rocky material looks to have been dumped in a wash in the park. The city says nothing was dumped into any wash. - RAY STERN
Some of the rocky material looks to have been dumped in a wash in the park. The city says nothing was dumped into any wash.
Ray Stern
"None of the materials were used in washes," Bach said in a reply. "Erosion control material reduces deterioration along the sides of washes where there is concentrated water run-off.

"The structures are expected to stay in place and support plant growth, designated walking paths and reduce illegal parking/dust control in that space. Yes, this was planned before the materials were delivered."

Van Gasse doesn't buy that story, nor does he believe that the erosion control structures are made to be permanent, as the city contends. He's cynical about the new structures made from the donated material, pointing out that the city approved the spending of $23 million to upgrade trails in time for the park's centennial in 2024. Now it has a collection of ugly planters and berms made from the rocky soil.

"This hardly fits the mold," he said.

For the activists, everything comes back to the lack of transparency. The city didn't have so much as a dust abatement plan or permit. Despite the EPA's clean bill of health for the tested soil, Van Gasse said both the original dump and what he calls the "re-dumping" may constitute violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act. The activists will keep digging and pressing on the city for more details, they said. Van Gasse said he may tap the Center for Law in the Public Interest or Earth Justice, the legal arm of the Sierra Club, for a potential court action, depending on what they find.

"They obviously wanted to keep it hush-hush," Van Gasse said of the city's plan with Maracay Homes. "Consistent through all of it is the lying."

Below: The plan for the fill released by the city in July, and the SGS chemical testing report.