Soiled Process

The Folks At Rita Ranch Fight A Losing Battle.
By Tim Vanderpool

BETTER A THOUSAND enemies outside the house, goes the Arabic proverb, than even one inside. And that's a maxim Rita Ranch follows like gospel: Sprawling unabashedly into Tucson's eastside desert, the ranch is a typical, master-planned study in controlled alienation, with walled yards fronted by identically bland homes, all trailing down countless empty streets to puddle in squeaky clean cul-de-sacs, a place where the infrequent pedestrian garners stares and residents remain mostly anonymous.

All of which makes Rita Ranch a highly unlikely hub of collective activism. But external threats can make for improbable subdivision bedfellows.

The invader is Southwest Soil Remediation Inc., a company with big plans to set up a miniature factory within shouting distance of an elementary school, and little more than a stone's throw from the nearest home. The site would clean toxin-laced dirt by burning it, sending noxious fumes into nearby skies.

And while the amount of eventual emissions is probably negligible, neighbors haven't let such niggling details get in their way. They've packed public hearings denouncing the project, and pressured their councilwoman into reluctant allegiance.

Regardless, it appears Southwest Soil has hunkered down for the long haul, and people living around the site can't do squat about it. That's despite the determined posturing of local officials, with the city trying to yank the company's building permit, and the county going through the public comment routine by rote.

Those same officials say the controversy points to problems with industrial zonings adjacent to residential areas throughout the county. They predict the problem will only worsen as Tucson continues spiraling outward.

Rita Ranch was zoned industrial long before homes started sprouting there. And since the remediation company appears to have a good track record, and is expected to ace current permit requirements, government apparently has little leeway to stop it.

"They've already had their air-quality permit since summer, for storage of the soil only," says Richard Grimaldi, technical services manager for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality. "Those air quality regulations specify what has to be done before they'll be permitted to begin remediation operations. Beyond that, if their permit meets the criteria, we really have no discretion to deny it."

He says there are few state or federal air-quality guidelines for soil clean-up plants--particularly those bordering residential areas--beyond making sure companies install the correct equipment. "It would be useful to have specific state and federal emissions standards for facilities like this, standards to compare against. But they're very slow to move at the state or federal levels.

"As it now stands, the standards are aggregate--based on the number of tons of soil treated per year," he says. "And once the company installs the control technology, that's about it."

He also blames Arizona lawmakers for removing the county's ability to impose stricter guidelines. "Formerly, our criteria was more stringent," he says. "But in 1994, the Legislature made it impossible for us to have more stringent standards that those at the state level."

And while comments from residents might affect the permit's fine print, "legally there is nothing else we can do. If there's no legislative requirement stopping it, the facility will get a permit," he says. "We can't just make up a requirement."

Rita Rancher Mary Ann Cleveland calls that a line of bull. She's among the noisiest contingent of Southwest Soil opponents, and labels the entire process a sham. "This whole thing has been rushed through," she says. "Even after the county held meetings to take comments, they simply reissued permits the company already had."

Cleveland says the site is far too close to Desert Spring Elementary School. "And other school properties are even closer, with children being the most susceptible to toxic emissions."

Regardless, she suspects the soil treatment plant is already a done deal. "I think the county is going to go ahead and give them this permit--it won't be a good decision, but they're probably going to slide this one through too."

Currently, only modular offices dot Southwest Soil's property. But while the company--which operates mobile remediation units around the country--already has permission to store soil on the site, that green light exists only on paper. The city has reneged on the storage building permit, arguing that may not be permissible under updated zoning requirements.

Southwest Soil owner Trevor Johansen says he's taking the building snafu to court, and denies his operation poses a threat. He says he's struggled ad nauseam in addressing community fears. "I guess the neighbors have a right to their opinion, but every guideline we're following is from the EPA manual and our experience operating in Arizona. These people get up at meetings acting like knowledgeable experts, and there's no way for us to get our point across when 400 people are shouting us down."

The county Department of Environmental Quality is slated to issue an air-quality permit decision sometime this month. If granted, those who registered opposition at the public hearings would have 30 days to appeal. If they do, the permit would be put on hold for another month, until the matter is hashed-out by a five-member air-quality hearing board.

Under the permit, Southwest Soil could pump more than 49,000 pounds of pollutants into the air annually, including up to 6,000 pounds of benzene, a deadly carcinogen. The facility would be allowed to monitor itself, subject to spot checks by the county.

Regardless, Johansen says he plans to treat only a fraction of the amount of soil allowed under the permit, with emissions "comparable to a small gas station."

Councilwoman Shirley Scott admits the proposed plant may not be the time-bomb her constituents claim. Still, "Folks have said over and over they have deep concerns about health problems there. That's why I plan to vote against it if it comes to the council."

Ultimately, she says permitting procedures themselves may deserve a second look. "I'd like to make sure that when there's a development like this, that we have a handle on things, and lots of careful analysis. If no ordinance is in place, then one needs to be enacted."

Either way, once the dust clears--and short of some disaster--worried Rita Ranch residents will likely beat a hasty retreat behind their walled suburban fortresses, a brief moment of cohesion evaporating like so many vapors in the Arizona sky. After all, it's a lifestyle they've worked hard for. TW

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