The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality will hold a public hearing April 8 to help decide whether a Northwest cement plant with a history of regulatory violations can modify its pollution-producing kilns and expand its production.
At the same time state pollution regulators are trying to determine what - if any - fines Arizona Portland Cement will face for two air pollution violations it incurred in January.
APC's management has said approval of the permit would allow it to modify or replace aging kilns in the 53-year-old plant with state-of-the-art technology that would actually reduce some emissions and avoid violations.
"We have some really old kilns we would like to get rid of," APC Plant Manager Dave Bittel told a group of 24 residents gathered in Rillito March 19. "They're tough to maintain and it's tough to control emissions, and that's one of the reasons were looking at this new permit."
Area residents opposed to the permit are skeptical of APC's claim and ADEQ's willingness to regulate the plant.
"It's a sham," Rillito resident Pat Gremmler said after the meeting. "We've been dealing with these problems for years and it seems like whatever APC wants to do, ADEQ just approves it. They work hand and hand."
Environmental activists and neighbors from the community of Rillito, which sits adjacent to the plant at 11115 N. Casa Grande Highway in unincorporated Pima County, have over the years vigorously protested the plant's emissions and violations.
Over the course of the last year, they have been joined by residents from the Continental Ranch-area neighborhood of Sunflower in Marana, which is three miles south of APC, and neighbors from the Happy Acres subdivision, located less than a mile southwest from the plant's stacks.
The activists and neighbors have been meeting regularly for months with representatives from ADEQ and the plant to discuss the permit and the recent violations. Last month, they presented the state with a petition signed by more than 200 neighbors seeking additional information on the plant's exceedances of federal limits placed on the emission of dioxin and furan that prompted ADEQ's notice of violation in January.
Furans and dioxins are chemicals formed from the burning of carbon, such as those contained in the coal, waste oil and shredded tires burned in APC's kilns.
Studies have linked excessive exposure to the chemicals to hormone and immune system disorders and certain cancers.
Although the plant exceeded the federal limits for the two chemicals, representatives from ADEQ and the Arizona Department of Health Services assured the residents in February that the emission levels did not pose a threat. A Health Services handout given to the neighbors at a meeting in February states matter of factly that "the best way to minimize your family's exposure to furans and dioxins is to be eating a healthy diet as recommended in the 'food pyramid.'"
In addition to seeking information about the amount of chemicals released during the exceedances, the demands listed on the residents' petition included the state requiring installation of air monitors in Rillito to regularly check for the presence of furans and dioxins, soil sampling and the testing of residents' blood and breast milk to look for the presence of the chemicals. The petition also demanded the inclusion in the proposed permit of a schedule that regularly tests the air for the compounds.
In a March 18 letter responding to the petition, Nancy Wrona, director of ADEQ's Air Quality Division, said it would take time for the state to address the issues raised by the residents.
"ADEQ shares the concerns raised in your petitions and considers the exceedances of the dioxin furan standard to be a serious issue," Wrona wrote. "The information and actions requested are currently being investigated by ADEQ. These issues, however, are complicated and ADEQ requests your patience as we diligently assemble a response."
Bittel told the residents at a meeting in February that he felt confident the problem that led to the exceedances could be corrected. The company has run several tests and found that changing the temperature in the kiln burning the raw materials needed to produce cement brought the emissions into compliance with federal standards.
David Esposito, assistant director for ADEQ's southern region, told residents the plant could face a maximum fine of $10,000 a day for every day the plant was in violation of the federal standards for dioxins and furans. He said he expected the results from the latest round of testing in late March or early April.
The permit sought by APC is known as a Title Five permit and is regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Arizona, like many states, oversees the permitting process on behalf of the federal government.
In addition to allowing the modification or replacement of one of APC's massive kilns, the permit would also consolidate the two separate existing permits that regulate both the plant and the quarry located west of Interstate 10 and south of Avra Valley Road.
Records obtained from the EPA indicate the plant emits an average of 10.3 million pounds of nitrogen oxide, 10.1 million pounds of carbon monoxide and 1.55 million pounds of tiny particulates each year. The emissions are all within state and federal limits.
According to the permit application, the plant also produces hazardous chemicals such as benzene and nickel as part of its production process for cement. The quarry is a source of dust and particulates from the mining activity that occurs there.
The plant, a subsidiary of California Portland Cement which is in turn owned by a Japanese corporation, has a checkered history of regulatory compliance.
APC was fined $82,442 by the EPA for failing to report its production and emissions of cobalt and nickel to federal regulators from 1996 to 1998. Both of the elements are listed by the EPA as possible cancer-causing agents.
In 1993, APC was hit with the largest fine ever imposed on an Arizona company by the EPA after it was discovered that the waste oil kiln fuel it had received from a Caribbean company was contaminated with benzene, a toxic substance linked to cancer and other health hazards.
The company paid $367,840 in fines for using the waste oil it imported from the Virgin Islands after entering into a court decree with the EPA in 1999. According to federal court records, some of the 845 tons of the hazardous waste stored at the plant began "spontaneously bursting into flames" and APC employees refused to handle it. The company did not report the hazardous waste for the almost sixth months it was stored at the site. The court records indicate the waste was "continually emitting benzene into the environment during that time."
In 1998, the company was also the first in the state to be hit with a federal environmental justice complaint. The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA by residents of the neighboring and predominately minority neighborhood of Rillito, members of the cement plant's union and environmental activists.
The complaint was filed under a 1998 law that requires the EPA in its permitting process to consider the proximity of minority and low-income neighborhoods, which are often located near pollution-producing manufacturing plants and generally lack the economic or political clout to oppose them.
MOST COMMENTS TO ADEQ CRITICAL OF CEMENT PLANT
In May 2002, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality received citizens' comments on the proposed Arizona Portland Cement Title Five permit. APC requested that the permit process be postponed until this year and the public hearing process must be repeated April 8.
The comments garnered during the 2002 hearing included:
"Many people in the Rillito community are in poor health. Some commentaries have stated that the permit needs to include more stringent emission limits to address this problem."
"Was APC's permit put on a fast track to avoid including newer, more stringent requirements?"
"Cement production is important to the economy and therefore ADEQ should issue this permit to APC."
"ADEQ should deny this permit due to prior instances of non-compliance by APC."
"The testing methods included in the permit are unclear."
"The community should be notified when excess emissions occur."
"… The five kilns have the potential of emitting metals and other hazardous air pollutants, yet no testing is required …"
"ADEQ should implement a state program to control (hazardous air pollutants) including hydrogen chloride emissions."
"The permit should include a limit on the emissions of sulfuric acid mists."
"The permit should include requirements for better dust control in general, and should also focus on controlling coal dust."
"The frequency of emissions tests on equipment at APC should be increased to at least annually."
"We provide services to APC and support the issuance of the permit."
PUBLIC HEARING SET FOR APRIL 8
The public hearing to accept public comment on the proposed permit for Arizona Portland Cement is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. April 8 at the Rillito Vista Recreation Center, 8820 W. Robinson St. in Rillito. Rillito is located a mile north of Avra Valley Road and west of the Interstate 10 frontage road.
For more information about the residents who have organized to voice their concerns about APC, contact Pat Gremmler at 682-3950, or Ann Marie Wolf at 321-9498.
The company's permit application and supporting documents are available for review at the Rillito Vista Recreation Center. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality had also planned to make copies of the documents available at the Sunflower Community Center, 9401 N. Sunflower Park Drive.
Comments related to the permit can also be mailed to:
Director, Air Quality Division
Arizona Department of
110 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ 85007
Mailed comments must be received by ADEQ by April 8 and include the sender's complete name and mailing address. For more information, contact ADEQ at 602-771-2288.