Marana resident Ken Jenson and Pat Gremmler of Rillito live three miles away from each other and worlds apart, but they share a mounting concern that the tons of pollution emanating from a nearby cement plant may be endangering their health and the well being of their neighbors.
Gremmler and Jenson have never met, but in similar ways they have become grassroots activists in their respective retirements. Both are worried the Arizona Portland Cement plant that lies between their neighborhoods is a danger, and both are angry that governmental regulatory agencies that oversee the plant's emissions are less than helpful in helping them determine what risk, if any, exists.
The cement plant discharges 5,063 tons of carbon monoxide and 5,129 tons of nitrogen oxide along with other chemicals into the air above the Northwest every year, and has been fined by government agencies in the past for its handling and reporting of toxic chemicals.
Residents are also concerned that the plant is permitted to burn waste oil and shredded tires in its kilns, which the plant does occasionally when there are supply problems with its normal fuels of coal and natural gas.
Jenson, 63, lives in the glistening new "active adult" community of Sunflower by Del Webb. It's a close knit neighborhood of about 500 homes situated on clean, curving streets where friends gather at the huge community pool or play bocci near the spacious community center. It's a subdivision of affluent, well-educated and mostly white retired people who take great pride in their neighborhood, which sits on the north end of the Continental Ranch developments in the shadow of Sombrero Peak.
"Continental Ranch is filled with retirees and children, and they are the people most vulnerable to pollution. We're concerned and we can't seem to get a straight answer from Arizona Portland Cement or the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality as to what is coming out of that plant," said Jenson, who lives with his wife Kathleen on West Cottonwood Wash Way, about three miles south of the cement plant.
"We want answers to our questions about how the plant may affect us here at Sunflower, but we also want to do anything we can to support the people of Rillito. They're the ones living directly under the plant's emissions," Jenson said.
Gremmler's neighborhood is much older than Jenson's, but equally close knit. Rillito stands in a small pocket of unincorporated Pima County north of Avra Valley Road that is surrounded by Marana. It's a neighborhood of about 250 people, many of whom are low income, and like most of Sunflower's residents, retired.
Some of the houses in Rillito are ramshackle, and the residents have asked the county for years to remove the abandoned and fire-gutted mobile homes that dot the streets. But it's one of those increasingly rare places where everyone knows their neighbor. It's incredibly well integrated with Black, Mexican-American, white and Native American folk living neighbor to neighbor.
Many people in Rillito say they love the isolated location of their community and that they wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
Unlike Sunflower, which began in 1997 and is still under construction, Rillito has historical roots stretching back to the 1880s when it served as a watering station for the steam engines that then ran the Southern Pacific Railroad line. By the turn of the century, it was populated mostly by black farmworkers who emigrated from Texas and other Southern states to work the cotton fields that still roll across parts of Marana.
Gremmler, 67, moved to Rillito in 1936 at the age of three and for reasons besides her tenure is considered by many to be the matriarch of the neighborhood. She and her husband Carl operated their own business, Gremmler Oil, in Tucson before they retired.
Gremmler's neighborhood lies just a few hundred feet north of the plant's emission stacks, and she believes APC has contributed to the respiratory complaints and cancers that have affected some of Rillito's residents over the years.
"It just seems to be getting worse all the time and we need more information about what they're doing there," said Gremmler "Even when you ask the plant management for information all you get back is 'we're in compliance.' And ADEQ says the same thing. But we see the dust and particulates all through the neighborhood. I know elderly people often have health problems, but we think the plant is contributing to their problems."
Arizona Portland Cement also has a long history in Rillito. The plant was constructed in 1948 when the neighborhood and the railroad siding were about the only manmade structures for miles around, and APC has provided much of the cement that has fueled the Tucson valley's growth since the post-World War II building boom.
In an interview earlier this year, APC's plant manager Dave Bittel strode to a large aerial photograph that hung inside the plant's conference room.
"Do you know why we're located where we are?" asked Bittel tapping his fingers on the map. "Because we needed limestone from this mountain here for our production process. Because there was already a railroad line and a roadway here so we could get our product to market. And when we started building this plant in 1948, hardly anyone lived out here."
Bittel has staunchly defended his plant's environmental record, noting that APC has had only one state air emission violation for dust and one "reporting" violation by the EPA in the past five years.
The plant was fined $82,442 by the EPA May 31 for failing to report emissions of toxic cobalt and nickel from 1996 to 1998. Plant management said the failure to report the emissions was a "reporting error."
In 1993, APC was fined $367,840 for burning oil in its kilns that was contaminated with benzene, a highly toxic and carcinogenic material. Federal investigators believe the plant burned more than 2.4 million pounds of the contaminated material in 1992. Plant officials say they were unaware the oil was contaminated, and APC later successfully sued Hess Oil, which shipped the fuel to the plant from the Virgin Islands.
Residents in Rillito and Sunflower say the state and federal air quality regulations APC management continually tout themselves as in compliance with may be insufficient to protect their health. The neighbors would like the state to conduct more extensive monitoring of the plant to insure that it is safe.
But so far, members of both communities said they are frustrated with state regulators who they say seem to spend more time deflecting criticism of APC than investigating their complaints or monitoring emissions from the plant.
And the residents are also concerned about what the future holds for their neighborhoods. APC is more than half finished with an expansion program expected to increase the plant's production capacity by 84 percent. The expansion was authorized under a permit issued by ADEQ in 1998.
A group of Sunflower residents, including Jenson, have met with officials from ADEQ three times since May, but say they're getting nowhere with the state. The residents have recently decided to take their concerns to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Jack Noble, a retired attorney and former special agent with the FBI, is a member of the the Sunflower Community Association's Board of Directors. Noble was drafting a letter from the residents to the EPA last week laying out their concerns about the plant and ADEQ's unresponsiveness.
"I just really got the feeling ADEQ was not interested and just wants us to go away. I think if there is going to be any assistance at all, it will have to come from the federal EPA. Arizona just isn't going to do it," the 72-year-old Noble said.
Sunflower residents said they believe that an oily odor that hangs over their neighborhood several times a month during the early morning hours is coming from oil or tires being burned at the cement plant.
Jon Marting, a field inspector for ADEQ who is investigating the Sunflower neighbor's complaints, disagrees.
Marting said he obtained APC records of when they have burned oil or tires and they don't match up to logs kept by residents at Sunflower in June.
ADEQ would only allow Marting to be interviewed by the Northwest EXPLORER in a conference call that included participation by a press relations official from Phoenix and Marting's supervisor, Dick Franklin.
"Most of the complaints of odor were between 5 and 7:30 in the morning, there's heavy equipment there at Sunflower, such as Caterpillar scrapers, haul trucks and graders that are started up to do land clearing and there's also construction of houses going on at Sunflower and the town of Marana has road projects going on …it seems just in Sunflower that the complaints are arising and we think it's localized there," Marting said.
Franklin said wind direction data obtained from APC also indicated the wind was moving to the north, or away from Continental Ranch, when resident's logs showed they detected the odor on eight occasions in May and June.
The residents' logs indicate the wind was blowing from the northeast on seven of the eight times the odor was detected. The plant lies three miles to the north of Continental Ranch.
"That's why we suspect it's the cement plant," said Jenson "we only get the smell when the wind blows from the north and the plant is what's up there."
On July 30, Noble requested ADEQ provide him with inspection reports from when APC was burning natural gas or coal, and any dates when ADEQ would be scheduled to monitor the plant's burning tires or oil. In turn, Marting asked Noble to provide ADEQ with a plat map of Sunflower in order to better track the residents' complaints.
"I went through hell and high water to get that plat map for them and so far no one has called to make arrangements to get it. And we still don't have the documents we asked for," Noble said, three weeks after his request was made.
"We're not going away the way they would like us to," Jenson said "We're going to fight this through until they begin providing us hard, factual information about that plant."
In Rillito, residents say they've already learned their lesson after several unproductive meetings with federal, state and county environmental officials.
"We have to gain political clout before any of the Rillito residents will have their voices heard by ADEQ or EPA," said Rose Augustine, a Tucson-based environmental activist who has been assisting the residents in Rillito.
Augustine said the residents are planning a voter registration drive in the neighborhood and are demanding more attention from their elected representatives.
Augustine and the residents are also working on formulating an independent health survey of the Rillito neighbors conducted by a medical researcher from Mississippi.
"That's when Pima County, the EPA and ADEQ will begin paying attention, that's when they won't have any choice but to pay attention," Augustine said.
And Rillito residents, along with union members from the cement plant who have been working without a contract since 1997, have moved to take more vocal actions.
Last month found Gremmler standing amid other protesters and pickets at APC's corporate office in Glendora, Calif. lambasting the cement plant's environmental practices through a bull horn.
"It was wonderful," Gremmler said.
She said she was thrilled to hear residents in Continental Ranch were also beginning to investigate emissions from the plant, and hoped the two neighborhoods could work together.
"You can never get any answers out of ADEQ, but maybe if the residents of Rillito and Continental Ranch could get together, more people would get something done. We would be happy to talk to them about it," Gremmler said.
Jenson said he planned to contact Gremmler this week.