Trash Troubles

A private-landfill proposal in Marana has residents, politicians and lobbyists spinning

In Marana, there are two sets of buttons being worn around town. Town Councilmember Herb Kai says he's wearing both.

"Unbeknownst to me, someone made them. I think it's just a family joke about watching two brothers fight with each other," Kai says.

Kai is referring to a 600-acre parcel he owns that's currently in escrow with DKL Holdings, a company interested in the turning the property into a landfill. The conflicting buttons Kai says he's wearing say, "I'm with Herb," and, "I'm with John."

John is John Kai, the vice mayor's brother, who owns property adjacent to the landfill site and is reportedly opposed to the dump proposal.

However, neighbors of the landfill project say they suspect Herb Kai is campaigning on behalf of DKL, passing out buttons and fliers, and making phone calls. Kai, however, denies any campaigning, and says someone else came up with the idea for the buttons—mostly to poke fun of the two brothers, whose family has been in the area since the 1930s.

Kai pledges that he won't talk about the landfill with other town officials and staff members. He's also recused himself from voting on anything related to the landfill that may come before the Marana Town Council, including a move to annex the property into Marana.

"I have spoken to family and friends. That's within my civil rights. But what's going on between my brother and I, that's what I think you'd call family dynamics. It's a disagreement," Kai says.

The Weekly was unable to reach John Kai for comment. His home number is unpublished, and a business number listed for Trico Gin, where John Kai is listed as a co-owner, no longer works.

Despite Herb Kai's promises, however, the proposal has stirred up dust—or, lately, mud—between the town, Pima County and a group of neighbors who live near the property, which is right on the outskirts of Marana in unincorporated Pima County.

One of those neighbors is Jens Hill, who says that even if Herb Kai recuses himself, there's a conflict of interest, since Kai is personally benefiting from the sale of his property to DKL, which is doing business with Marana.

What's more confusing, however, is the fact that Kai has had different opinions on similar projects in the past, Hill says.

"He has a history of standing up for water," Hill says. "In 1991, there was a landfill proposed within a mile of his home in the Dove Mountain area ... but I can't help wonder: Why my backyard, and not his?"

Kai says he didn't lend his support to that landfill because he felt there was a high risk of pollution. However, he feels he can support the new proposed project, because he feels there are more safeguards in place to handle pollution risks—namely, liners.

"DKL was able to put me at ease," Kai says about his concerns.

While Kai may be at ease, Hill and his neighbors feel the project is moving far too fast. They first found out about the landfill thanks to a letter that went out on Jan. 29 inviting them to a Feb. 4 meeting to learn about the project. From there, Hill says, neighbors quickly organized to learn more about a rezoning request headed to the Marana Planning Commission. Marana officials, they learned, were also interested in annexing the property and ironing out a deal with DKL that would allow the town to collect landfill fees.

On Wednesday, Feb. 24, despite neighbors' complaints, concerns levied by Pima County and a request by the Arizona State Land Department for 45-day continuance (so the department could complete a study on the project), the rezoning request was approved 3-2.

The rezoning plans will next go before the Marana Town Council. Hill says neighbors will continue to point out issues regarding the proposed landfill. After all, it's being built near the Brawley Wash on a 100-year flood plain, and area residents use a well near there that's currently owned by Tucson Water.

Pam Ruppelius, another concerned neighbor, says she's certain Marana and DKL didn't expect the neighbors to go to the Pima County Board of Supervisors and the Tucson City Council for help.

On Tuesday, March 2, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to ask the town to send the proposal back to the planning commission.

However, it's a nonbinding referendum, meaning the county can't force the town to do anything, or even prohibit Herb Kai or DKL from working with Marana to annex the property.

Nonetheless, Ruppelius says she's pleased the county is chiming in, especially regarding potential water contamination.

"We've been told that we shouldn't worry about water contamination, because there will be a liner put in, but we learned that even the (Environmental Protection Agency) doesn't approve or disapprove of liners, because in the end, all liners can eventually leak," Ruppelius says

"The bottom line is that this is all a political, money-making deal. Marana has the opportunity to make thousands of dollars off this landfill in fees."

Another concern addressed by neighbors and the county: They say there is nothing to stop DKL from accepting out-of-town or state waste, or eventually working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to get a permit to accept hazardous waste, since the landfill is private.

"This is our water; this is our family. We're not against development, but we just don't want a landfill over our aquifer," Ruppelius says.

Michael Racy, an attorney and lobbyist representing DKL (who also happens to represent Pima County and the town of Marana), says the project is not moving too fast. He claims the landfill will probably not be operational for a couple of years because of all the studies and assessments that are legally required.

"There is extensive engineering analysis and state-permitting procedures," Racy says.

The attorney was startled by the county's reaction to the plan, considering the Marana Regional Landfill Specific Plan draft was first submitted to the county for comment in December.

"I understand that this is an emotional issue. But there is information out there that is not based on fact. This is a private landfill, yes, but federal regulations prevent the landfill from collecting liquid waste, tires or hazardous waste. The point of the landfill is to service the northwest part of the county, not take in out-of-state trash," Racy says.

"I'm concerned that right now, it's more about putting information out there that's about fear. I think as time goes on, people will realize that's not what this landfill is about."

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