An east Mesa defense contractor with a history of environmental violations is seeking a state permit allowing it to burn tons of hazardous chemicals in the open air just a few miles from homes, businesses and schools.
Talley Defense Systems, acquired in March by a Scandinavian consortium owned by the governments of Norway and Finland, wants the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to grant a 10-year permit that would allow it to burn up to 60,000 pounds per year of experimental rocket propellant and other chemicals at a site northeast of Thomas and Higley roads.
The application for the hazardous-waste-treatment-facility permit stems from a list of requirements ordered by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge in 1989 after Talley was found to have caused excessive lead contamination in the soil. The company cleaned up the lead but has since detected a build-up of perchlorates — linked to thyroid problems in humans — in groundwater underneath the burn site, DEQ documents show.
The site is on state trust land leased by Talley, which produces rocket launchers, air crew ejector seats and other devices fueled by ammonium nitrate and ammonium perchlorate propellants. When burned, the propellants release a host of pollutants including gaseous hydrochloric acid into the air.
Nearly two decades later, Talley’s DEQ permit application still has not been approved, though the company has continued to burn explosive chemicals at the site by authority of a federal “interim” permit intended to cover its activities until the state permit could be issued.
Some area residents and at least one local environmental group say they oppose the permit because the Talley site is too close to populated areas and because the company has shown an inability to control its pollution. They want the defense contractor to transport its chemicals to an out-of-state disposal facility, as does its Phoenix competitor Aircraft Interior Products Propulsion Systems.
Talley executives said they are now required to transport the bulk of their waste chemicals off site to comply with other regulatory requirements, and that the proposed DEQ permit would be used only for small batches of experimental compounds.
On Aug. 13, 1996, a plume of thick, black smoke rose above the east-Mesa skyline, high enough to catch the eye of nearby resident John Makestaad, who called in a complaint to DEQ.
The smoke emanated from a metal container, known as a “burn box,” in which Talley Defense Systems regularly places solid explosives for disposal by burning.
Makestaad had known of recent brush fires in the area and questioned whether Talley was to blame, a DEQ record of the conversation shows. In fact, the company had ignited at least one brush fire, in 1992, which “got out of control” and required the Mesa Fire Department to extinguish it.
More than a decade later, area residents still worry about the effects of Talley’s burning activities on the local environment and those who live in it, especially now that the company is close to receiving a state permit that would ensure continued chemical burning for another 10 years.
East Mesa resident Gerald Harris said he once lived close to a chemical plant and remembers the horror stories about environmental devastation and medical mayhem associated with its operation.
Harris doesn’t understand why the state’s designated environmental regulator would allow a company just north of a major residential area to burn chemicals known to harm people.
“I think that there should be a town hall meeting or something,” he said. “I think the more the public is aware of this, the more they’ll feel like I do.”
The executives at Talley Defense Systems are acutely aware that their company’s activities have been cause for concern. They have gone to great lengths to allay those concerns by conducting pollution studies and agreeing to procedures that they say nearly eliminate harmful effects.
The potential for adverse health impacts “is considered to be negligible,” explains one Talley Defense Systems document on file with DEQ.
“One of the most important operating conditions is to burn waste materials only when the wind is blowing away . . . from sensitive receptors and heavily populated areas,” it states. “The closest hospital in the allowable wind directions is in the town of Scottsdale approximately 12 miles away (to the North), and the nearest school is in the city of Mesa (Barbara Bush Elementary) (Southeast) is approximately 7 miles away.
“Modeling results indicate that concentrations of combustion products significantly decrease downwind. Therefore, the number of individuals who could be exposed in the downwind direction is estimated to be less than 50 off-site and less than 10 on-site.”
Too close to home
Environmental activist Steve Brittle thinks 50 people is too many.
He wants Talley to ship its explosives out of state to a company in Louisiana that specializes in hazardous-waste disposal.
That’s what one of the company’s competitors, Phoenix-based Aircraft Interior Products Propulsion Systems, decided to do after facing public outcry and lawsuit threats over its propellant burning at the company’s 25401 N. Central Avenue location.
The defense contractor, formerly known as Universal Propulsion Company, was purchased by tire-maker Goodrich Corp. in 1998 and began shipping its waste to Clean Harbors Environmental Services in Colfax, La., in 2004.
But Talley spokeswoman Sue Kobyleski said her company also transports the bulk of its propellant to Clean Harbor, though just two years ago its executives argued with DEQ that doing so would be dangerous and pointless.
In a memo to DEQ dated Aug .18, 2005, company environmental quality specialist Robert Blomberg stated that transporting Talley’s solid reactive waste to Clean Harbors would not eliminate the problem of open burning, because the Louisiana company also uses open burning to dispose of its waste.
Blomberg added that transporting the chemicals can have deadly consequences, as demonstrated by a recent incident in which a truck carrying chemical explosives crashed in Utah and was “vaporized” by its payload.
“It is not a safe alternative to require additional storage, handling and transportation of reactive wastes,” the memo states. “Shipping dangerous materials for open outdoor burning elsewhere is a higher risk than on-site open burning.”
Still, Kobyleski said the company’s most recent DEQ open-burn permit, separate from the hazardous-waste permit, only allows Talley to burn “research formulations,” and that the company has greatly reduced the amount of material it burns each year.
In 2004, Talley burned 11,236 pounds of solid chemical waste at its Mesa facility. Kobyleski said that amount had decreased dramatically by 2006, to less than 260 pounds.
No chemicals have been burned at the Mesa site so far this year, she added.
Still, Kobyleski could not explain why the proposed hazardous-waste permit would allow up to 60,000 pounds per year. She said the company would be limited by the restrictions of the separate open-burn permit, but a copy of that permit reveals that it allows burning of up to 600 pounds a day, 255 days a year — a total of 153,000 pounds per year.
Still, since the burning of standard propellant is no longer allowed on site, Kobyleski said Talley only burns a small amount of research compounds that cannot be classified for shipping because their explosive properties are unknown.
Regardless of the amount burned, Brittle said the fact remains that Talley has a growing groundwater pollution problem, and that granting the company another burn permit will only make things worse.
“It makes you wonder who’s minding the store,” he said.
Kobyleski acknowledged in a July memo to DEQ that the company had a mounting groundwater contamination problem on its hands, and that it would work to address it.
“We have received our analytical results and were disturbed to see levels of perchlorate elevated beyond the levels detected in samples obtained in July 2005,” her memo states.
She said even though the company uses state trust land for its burning activities, Talley is ultimately responsible for the cleanup — not taxpayers.
“With ADEQ, we have addressed potential areas of concern over the past 15 years and are actively working with ADEQ on the topic of perchlorate remediation,” she said.
A public-comment period is under way for residents to ask questions or file complaints with DEQ about the pending permit, but Mesa resident Harris questioned how serious the agency is about responding to those concerns.
“I called four times and have gotten no response back,” he said.
How to respond
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is accepting public comment on the proposed Talley Defense Systems hazardous waste permit through Dec. 21 and has promised to extend the comment period to a still-unspecified date.
Any interested person can submit written comments or requests for a public hearing to:
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality
Anthony Leverock, Manager
Hazardous Waste Permits Unit
1110 W. Washington St.
Phoenix AZ 85007
Phone: (602) 771-4160
The draft permit may be viewed at the Mesa Public Library’s Red Mountain Branch, 635 N. Power Road, during regular business hours.
The complete administrative record is also available for review at the ADEQ Phoenix office, which can be viewed by appointment.