Utah takes waste that Arizona rejected

  • Waiting for the train: Arizonans say "no" to waste

    Teri Johnson

Chalk one up for the little guy. After four months of pressuring the Environmental Protection Agency and garbage giant Waste Management Inc., environmentalists in Arizona and California have scored a major victory.

Trainloads of DDT-contaminated mud from a San Francisco Bay Superfund site are no longer headed to Waste Management's landfill in Mobile, Ariz., a tiny town just 30 miles southwest of Phoenix.

Some 60,000 tons of waste from the cleanup job did land in Mobile, but the last 20,000 are going instead to a landfill in East Carbon City, Utah, 100 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. The waste is considered hazardous under California's stringent environmental laws, but non-hazardous in most other states, including Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

Working-class people in two largely minority communities - Richmond, Calif., where the waste originated, and Mobile, where the waste was headed - stopped the shipments.

"This is pretty significant," said Manuel Pastor Jr., chairman of the Latin American Studies Department at University of California-Santa Cruz. "There have been attempts to build these kinds of alliances between two communities. This is one of the few times I've heard of people actually linking at both the source and the destination and actually having an impact on public policy."

The protests also awakened Arizonans to the need for stricter waste laws. EPA and dump officials still insist the Butterfield landfill in Mobile was a proper destination for the material. The EPA said it ordered the change to keep a promise to Arizona residents that shipments would end after Dec. 1. The project should have been completed by then, but dredging operations at the defunct pesticide plant had fallen behind schedule.

The West County Toxics Coalition, a primarily minority organization based in industrial Richmond, Calif., had been pushing for cleanup of the site, which was placed on the federal government's Superfund list of most toxic places in 1990. But the effort blew up last fall when EPA and Waste Management officials could not find a dump for the dredgings. They retreated from their first disposal choice, a dump outside Colorado Springs, Colo., after residents there objected.

So Waste Management turned to Mobile, where it already owned a landfill and where most households live on less than $19,000 a year. Some houses in the town of 70 people have no running water, heat or air conditioning.

The Arizona landfill is state-of-the-art and well suited for the waste, said Don Cassano, a Waste Management spokesman. The dry climate, deep aquifer and sparsely populated community make it an excellent location for a landfill, he said.

But some Mobile residents cried foul. "We don't know what our overall exposure is," said Sharon Scroggins, a landfill critic. "When they got the Superfund contract, that was the final straw."

They fought back with the assistance of San Francisco-based Greenpeace organizer Bradley Angel, who had earlier helped defeat a hazardous waste incinerator proposed for Mobile by another company. He and others made the case that the area, which is home to many Indians and Hispanics, was becoming an environmental sacrifice zone: It already has two landfills and a third one is coming. So is an oil refinery.

"You'll never see this stuff in the gated communities where the rich people live," Angel said.

A few residents had also threatened to sue for breach of contract, claiming that neither Waste Management nor the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality consulted the community before accepting "special wastes' other than household debris. "I don't know about you, but DDT isn't on my kitchen counter," says Steve Brittle of Don't Waste Arizona, an environmental group. State and company officials contend they did follow proper notice and permitting procedures.

In September, some West County Toxics members from Richmond, Calif., took the unusual step of flying to Phoenix to support their Arizona counterparts. Don't dump on another poor, minority community, said members from the gritty city by the bay. "This was pretty unique," said Keith Takata, the EPA's regional Superfund program director in San Francisco. "Most people are usually pretty glad to get it out of their area."

As a result of the combined pressure, Felicia Marcus, the EPA's regional administrator in San Francisco, has agreed to tour Mobile and look into residents' complaints. The EPA is also considering new policies that require public hearings at both ends of the Superfund waste stream, Takata said.

And in Arizona, some legislators will likely push for stronger environmental laws like the one that protected California from the DDT-laden dirt, said Sandra Kotzambasis, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

"Arizona citizens are saying, 'Time out; let's re-evaluate what you are doing here to our communities,' " said EPA spokeswoman Paula Bruin.

Meanwhile, there's little controversy in Utah. State officials say the East Carbon City dump has direct railroad access and was built to handle large quantities of industrial waste.

Some East Carbon residents have complained, but few have organized: Phyllis Johnson, who fought against the local landfill before it opened in 1992, said the political climate in Utah simply doesn't support environmental activism. "Nobody cares. My friends are upset, but they say, 'What's the use?' "

As for the environmentalists, they insist they are not celebrating because the mud now goes to a white, working-class community.

"We are concerned about people, period," said Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition. "We can't hide our heads in the sand and pretend this waste isn't going to go somewhere."

For more information, contact Bradley Angel of Greenpeace, 415/512-9025; Don Cassano of Waste Management Inc., at 602/470-0225; Nate Lau of the EPA at 415/744-2261; or Steve Camp of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality at 602/207-2300.

James Bruggers writes from Oakland, Calif. Former HCN intern Katie Fesus contributed to this report.

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