Johnson Utilities ACC hearing

Johnson Utilities officials, from left, attorney Jeffrey Crockett, CEO Gary Drummond and Chief Operating Officer Brad Cole, listen as the Arizona Corporation Commission questions environmental officials about past sewage violations alleged against the company April 17 in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — Pinal County Air Quality Control Director Mike Sundblom testified Monday about the county’s enforcement of hydrogen sulfide gas violations at a Johnson Utilities plant during the evidentiary hearing at the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Sundblom did not say whether the plant posed a clear health hazard to residents, noting the standards used by the county are not tied to health effects, but set to match state standards.

The plant had 108 hydrogen sulfide violations between 2015 and 2017. According to Sundblom’s testimony, none of these violations were reported by the utility, even though it is monitoring for the gas itself, but by citizens who complained and the county’s own hydrogen sulfide monitor. The county could have fined Johnson Utilities $10,000 per violation, up to $1,008,000, but it would have had to take the case to court. Instead, on Aug. 21, Johnson Utilities agreed to pay $20,000 and to file a plan to change operations at the plant to keep hydrogen sulfide emissions within the legal limit.

Sundblom said that he negotiated the final sum of the penalty.

“That was the negotiated penalty that both parties were willing to accept,” Sundblom said. “I don’t believe it was willful or negligent. I believe the violations are the result of a facility that has operational issues.”

Deputy Pinal County Attorney Kevin Costello questioned Sundblom and emphasized that the county does not have the power to unilaterally enforce penalties against the utility. Had Johnson Utilities not agreed to pay the fine, it would have turned into a legal battle, thus the negotiated sum.

Sundblom also confirmed that prior to the settled fine, Johnson Utilities submitted documents to the county that it had plans to build a closed mechanical plant, unlike the open lagoon-style one currently operating. The project was expected to cost about $2.5 million, and the company was committed to putting up the capital.

However, at some point those plans were nixed in favor of modest changes to the current plant and adding additional chemicals to the process to hinder the creation of hydrogen sulfide. Sundblom did not fully explain why the plans changed, but insisted that there was no quid pro quo between the county and the utility to lower the fine in exchange for a new plant, which was never built.

Sundblom said that while the problem was not fixed by the measures adopted in the order of abatement — there have been multiple hydrogen sulfide violations in 2018 — the frequency of violations has improved.

The plant has been the cause of controversy, protest and a high volume of complaints from residents. Sundblom said he was directed by County Manager Greg Stanley to stop discussing the issue directly with residents because the conversations were becoming accusatory and combative. The department has since moved to posting information about the plant and hydrogen-sulfide monitor readings to its website.