Johnson Utilities sign

The Johnson Utilities plant off Hunt Highway has received three visits from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality since Jan. 20.

FLORENCE — Johnson Utilities has plans, with the blessing of state environmental regulators, to solve issues of wastewater odor and capacity in San Tan Valley, a company attorney told the Pinal County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday.

Some supervisors, however, were skeptical and expressed frustration with so many state and private entities that don’t appear to be working well together while the county has little power over the issue.

“I do want to move forward, and as fast as possible,” Supervisor Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, said. “I hate government. I’m not a politician. I’m just a regular guy that has just tried to make a difference here, and government and politics get in the frickin’ way. … It’s time to stop and get the job done. That’s my request to Johnsons; that’s my request to the ADEQ (Arizona Department of Environmental Quality); that’s my request to the ACC (Arizona Corporation Commission); and EPCOR,” the interim operator the ACC appointed to run JU in 2018.

Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, said he was excited to hear JU’s proposals.

“The end is in sight if we go this route,” House said.

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, said he’d like to hear EPCOR’s side. Miller also said JU owner George Johnson has promised many things over the years, yet customers are still waiting for results.

The ACC questioned why the county would hear from JU. The board clerk read a letter from ACC legal counsel Robin Mitchell, which said in part, “Because there is an interim manager in place who has operational control of the utility, Johnson ownership is not the proper entity to design solutions to any compliance issues.”

Attorney David Kimball presented Johnson Utilities’ plans, developed with the help of consultants, which he said would expedite compliance with environmental regulations and save ratepayers tens of millions of dollars at the Section 11 wastewater plant at Magic Ranch and the Pecan Creek wastewater plant on North Gantzel Road.

Kimball told the board that JU had reached a “conceptual settlement” with ADEQ in November to achieve full compliance. ADEQ further approved a “compliance schedule” of cost-effective and timely solutions in May, he said.

Kimball said owner George Johnson personally guarantees to fund projects within time frames established by the ADEQ, including initial projects during JU’s motion before the ACC to terminate the interim manager. Because JU’s plans would settle a lawsuit brought by ADEQ, JU would be under court order to complete them, Kimball told the board.

At the board’s May 27 meeting, it declined to send a letter in support of either ADEQ’s authority or JU’s plans.

‘Tit for tat’

Goodman said the ACC and ADEQ “should be working together” on these issues. Supervisor Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville agreed, “Excuse the expression, but they have a pissing match going on. … Who in the state of Arizona can get these entities to work together?” Rios asked, and suggested the state ombudsman.

Miller said it’s two state agencies playing “tit for tat” while 100,000 San Tan Valley residents suffer. Miller said these agencies exist for consumer protection but “they don’t protect anybody; it’s all about power.”

Miller also said customers have already been paying for a future expansion, and Johnson’s current proposals shouldn’t be justification for higher rates.

Kimball replied he understands the frustration, and compliance is not what it should have been. But he continued JU can’t be faulted for coming up with a solution in 2017, going through the approval process and then being denied the ability to implement it because “an interim manager comes in and doesn’t do the very thing he has authority to do, and doesn’t do it for 21 months — even though they spent more money than was necessary to achieve the solution we know was readily available, and we had performance guarantees to achieve.”

Nancy Roberts and Larry Quick, both residents of Sun Valley Farms, north of Arizona Farms Road near Florence, spoke to the board in support of Johnson Utilities. Roberts said JU solved a huge problem for the community and has always responded to problems quickly, efficiently and responsibly. Quick added if anything, since EPCOR took over, his water pressure has gone down.

No action was scheduled, and the board took no action, except to ask County Manager Louis Andersen for direction on the county’s position or potential action. Andersen replied the board could choose to write a letter to the state agencies in response to JU’s proposals. The board could also invite EPCOR to share its plans at a future meeting.

Andersen said ADEQ sent its regrets on being unable to attend Wednesday, but might also like to address the board at a future date. He said the county could also contact the state ombudsman, as Rios suggested.

Fixes are overdue

Goodman said that at a lunch meeting years ago between county officials and staff and top JU officials, “There were certain commitments made to us as a county, and one of them was an overall plan for how this thing was going to go,” including closing the troubled Section 11 plant and designs for a new Copper Basin plant. “We’ve yet to see any of that.”

Goodman continued that compliance issues have been going on for years, and to now blame EPCOR “is just unheard of. … They were sent to clean this up. …

“I’ve gotten phone calls from developers pounding me — pounding me — because they’re stifled in what they can do. But I tell them ‘You know what? You’re going to come and go. At the end of the day it’s the people who live here, it’s the ratepayers, it’s us as a county, who’s going to be left.’”

With EPCOR in charge, Goodman said he’s not getting complaints of a school shutting down for lack of water, or residents running out of water in the middle of summer. “I don’t have raw sewage coming up in neighborhoods right now.”

Goodman said it’s true, San Tan Valley grew faster than anyone anticipated, and he’s empathetic to that. But when the economy took a downturn, if the utility was run like any kind of municipality preparing for growth, “it would have been planned and developed a lot better than what it is.

“You guys have come in here with all kinds of fixes — why? Because they need to be done.” They should’ve been done before, “and they weren’t,” Goodman said.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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