State pollution regulators are accepting public comment related to the issuance of a new permit for the Arizona Portland Cement Co. plant, one of the largest producers of air emissions in Southern Arizona and a source of concern for environmental activists and several northwest neighborhoods.

The permit, known as a Title V permit, is issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency but is being implemented and overseen by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. The new permit seeks to consolidate existing separate permits for APC's manufacturing plant at 11115 N. Casa Grande Highway, and the company's quarry, which lies four miles to the west between Twin Peaks and Avra Valley roads, ADEQ spokesman Patrick Gibbons said.

The plant and the quarry are located in an island of unincorporated Pima County surrounded by Marana.

The 52-year old cement 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 into the air each year, according to ADEQ records.

The plant, which burns coal, waste oil and shredded tires in its kilns, produces hazardous chemicals such as benzene and heavy metals such as nickel, as part of its cement production process, according to its permit application with ADEQ.

The quarry is a source of dust and other particulate matter from the haul trucks, blasting and other mining activity, according to the permit application.

And according to documents found in the ADEQ permit file, the company is seeking a permit modification to decommission three of its coal-burning kilns and replace it with one other kiln capable of burning tires and waste oil.

"That's something that the company is proposing to do under a separate permit, but the new kiln is still up in the air. It would happen under a separate permit procedure that we won't even begin to look at until we've completed the current permit process," said Eric Massey, environmental program supervisor in the ADEQ's air quality division.

Despite the assertion in the company's documents that proposes an "alternative operating scenario" that would allow the new kiln to burn tires, Janelle Kennedy, APC's environmental manager, said that wasn't the case.

"We don't know what it will be burning. It hasn't been permitted yet," she said.

Although state regulators have scheduled a public hearing on the permit for May 13, ADEQ has already begun holding weekly meetings with members of the Rillito Vista and Happy Acres neighborhoods that border the cement plant.

"Our hopes are not high that we can do anything about the permit," said Pat Gremmler, a Rillito resident since 1936 and a staunch opponent of the plant. "We've been through this many times during the years. We voice our concern and they approve the permit. It's like the state isn't interested in anything except helping Arizona Portland Cement."

Members of the Sunflower retirement community in Marana, which lies three miles to the south of APC, said they also planned to attend the public hearing and express their concerns.

"We have been saying for some time now that the plant is not only bad for the people living right under it, but for those of us here in Continental Ranch and there just doesn't seem to be much of an effort on the part of ADEQ to do anything about it," said Sunflower resident Ken Jenson.

APC was fined $82,442 by the EPA last year for failing to report its production and emissions of cobalt and nickel to federal regulators from 1996 to 1998. Both elements are listed by the EPA as possible cancer-causing agents.

In 1993, APC garnered 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.

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 Rillito Vista neighborhood, 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 have often been the unwilling neighbors of pollution-producing manufacturing plants and generally lack the economic or political clout to oppose them.

At a meeting held in Rillito April 16, representatives from ADEQ and Arizona Portland Cement fielded questions from about 20 residents from Rillito Vista and Happy Acres.

Some residents raised concerns with David Esposito, assistant director of ADEQ's southern regional office, about the lack of state inspections and the reliance on APC to police itself by doing most of its own inspections and then submitting reports to ADEQ.

"Just like our President's maxim, it's 'trust but verify'. Not only do we trust them to monitor themselves, but we verify their inspection records and inspect them ourself at least once a year," Esposito said.

When asked how often the state monitoring occurs, the ADEQ representatives deferred to Kennedy and an attorney representing the plant, Amy McKinley.

"It varies," Kennedy said. "I know that one year, I don't remember when, there were about 11 inspections in the course of a year. But I wouldn't know how often the inspections occur without having my records here."

According to records provided by ADEQ to the Northwest EXPLORER after the meeting, ADEQ conducted independent inspections four times in 2001.

ADEQ inspectors conducted an "annual compliance inspection" on April 24, which necessitated a follow up inspection on June 21. The department also checked APC's pollution control equipment in January and March and investigated a complaint in June.

Esposito said at the meeting that APC is in compliance with his department's regulations and those of the EPA.

Another resident asked how many pollution monitors the plant had in place and was told by Kennedy three stacks have continuous monitoring systems.

When asked by a reporter how many total stacks the plant had, Kennedy said there were 105 "emission points" at the plant.

Most of the other stacks are monitored by "opacity tests" in which plant employees or state inspectors trained in observing emissions look at the plume and determine its level by how opaque it is, Kennedy said, although many of the stacks also have dust collectors that help reduce pollution.

Other concerns raised by the residents were mercury emissions from the burning of coal that are not monitored, coal dust blown from hills of the fuel that the plant maintains on its property, the lack of soil testing for contaminants and the need for medical studies for Rillito residents who say they are suffering respiratory ailments and other health effects they believe are related to the plant.

"We're scraping film off of the neighborhood's cars and the windows of the houses, we see the dust and pollution in the air and stuck to the trees and you tell us you're monitoring this stuff. Are you telling us this is safe?" said Rose Augustine, a Tucson environmental activist who has been working with the Rillito residents.

"Any particulate matter that is not nitrogen or oxygen is not healthy," Esposito said. "I'm not going to tell you that everything that comes out of that plant is healthy. We write the permit based on the best of our ability, based on the best of our knowledge of the plant, and to the best of our legal ability."

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