For the past quarter-century, state and federal regulators have suspected a growing plume of contamination under defense contractor Talley Defense Systems’ east Mesa burn site but have done nothing to stop it.
Talley is seeking a state permit to continue burning ammonium nitrate and perchlorate rocket propellants for at least another 10 years at the site, but some area residents and environmentalists are concerned about the perchlorate contamination, which has seeped into the groundwater 500 feet below the plant site.
The chemical has been linked to thyroid problems in studies on humans.
Even more disturbing is that a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report dating back to 1980 identified the potential problem at Talley’s burn site but did not recommend additional testing or cleanup activities.
Talley has been burning chemicals at the site, near Higley and McKellips roads, since 1966.
The company has been in negotiations for nearly 20 years with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality to procure what is known as a “Part B” permit to continue open burning to dispose of chemicals used in shoulder-mounted rockets, air crew emergency ejection seats, automotive air bags and other products.
An EPA inspection report dated June 17, 1980, states environmental officials at that time believed perchlorate contamination was present in the soil. However, they declared the site a “low priority for inspection” because of its topography and remote location.
“Hazardous wastes may have been disposed of on site,” EPA staff member Paula Besson agreed in a handwritten comment added to the report on June 27, 1983. “However, the fact that a cone of depression exists in the groundwater in the area, the remoteness of the area & the depth to groundwater (500 to 600 ft.), make this a low priority for follow up.”
However, in the 25 years that followed, growth and development encroached on the Talley site, with hundreds of east Mesa homes now within a mile of its location.
Meanwhile, ammonium perchlorate contamination has seeped into the groundwater and has become increasingly severe, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality records indicate.
Talley spokeswoman Sue Kobyleski told the Tribune in a written response that her company is aware of the problem and is working on a plan to clean up the perchlorate contamination.
“We have been proactively testing our site to monitor any environmental impacts,” she said. “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.”
Still, EPA spokeswoman Leah Butler said she could not find any records indicating actual cleanup activities have commenced.
“Based on the documents we have, there doesn’t seem to be any,” Butler said.
Children and pregnant women are considered particularly at risk for ammonium perchlorate’s effects on the thyroid, although recent studies have cast some doubt about whether perchlorate exposure causes any serious harm.
Studies indicate it inhibits the thyroid gland’s ability to absorb iodine from the bloodstream, which the gland uses to produce certain hormones. The “iodide uptake inhibition” effects are considered temporary and reversible, as long as exposure to the chemical is discontinued, current research says.
The stubborn compound, “used in the production of solid rocket fuel, fireworks, air bags and munitions, is odorless, colorless and tasteless and breaks down very slowly in the environment,” according to information on the DEQ Web site.
There is no federal standard for safe perchlorate levels in drinking water, although both DEQ and the EPA continue to study its effects. Most health officials consider 14 parts per billion enough to affect human thyroid function.
In 2004, DEQ conducted a study of perchlorate contamination in Arizona’s groundwater, taking samples from 35 test wells statewide. It did not sample groundwater near the Talley site, but did test for perchlorate in groundwater underneath the north Phoenix site of the former Universal Propulsion Co., whose products and open-burning activities at the time resembled those of Talley’s.
An analysis of the groundwater found 130 parts per billion of perchlorate, the highest known concentration in Arizona. Universal Propulsion, now a Goodrich Co. division known as Aircraft Interior Products Propulsion Systems, was ordered to clean up the contamination and has discontinued open burning.
Permission to burn
Talley Defense Systems, acquired in March by a Scandinavian consortium owned by the governments of Norway and Finland, wants DEQ 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 in Mesa.
The Part B permit application 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 buildup of perchlorates in groundwater underneath the burn site, DEQ documents show.
No analysis of perchlorate levels is contained in the voluminous DEQ administrative record accompanying Talley’s permit application, but Kobyleski acknowledged in a July memo to DEQ that the company had a growing 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.
A public comment period is under way for Talley’s permit application, and DEQ spokesman Mark Shaffer said the department has received 50 calls and five to 10 letters since the Tribune first published an article about the permit application on Nov. 9.
Kobyleski said her company already has significantly reduced the amount and frequency of ammonium nitrate and perchlorate burning, and that it now ships the bulk of its chemical waste to a disposal facility in Louisiana.
Still, several area residents said they don’t think Talley should be allowed to burn 60,000 pounds of perchlorate annually, since the company already has a contamination problem it has failed to reverse.
DEQ officials have said they will hold a public hearing on the permit application if residents show a “significant interest” in having one, but so far no hearing has been scheduled.
“I cannot believe that there has not been a significant interest,” Mesa resident Carla Boyle said. “I will do what I can to get some letters written.”
How to respond
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is accepting public comment through Dec. 21 on the proposed Talley Defense Systems hazardous waste permit and has promised to extend the comment period to a still-unspecified date. People can submit comments or public hearing requests to: Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Anthony Leverock, Hazardous Waste Permits Unit, 1110 W. Washington St., Phoenix AZ 85007. People with questions may also call (602) 771-4160.
Learn about the permit
A fact sheet about the draft permit is available for review 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 DEQ Phoenix office, 1110 W. Washington St., by appointment.