SAN TAN VALLEY — Johnson Utilities has announced plans to close the Section 11 plant off Hunt Highway and replace it with a new facility to be known as the Copper Basin Water Reclamation Plant.
The new plant will be a “state of the art enclosed mechanical plant,” according to a release posted on the company’s website. It will be built on 32 acres that the utility already owns.
The release cites frequent odor complaints from nearby residents as the reason for the shutdown, but the plant has been the subject of a slew of environmental violations.
Between May 3, 2017, and July 24 the plant had hydrogen sulfide emissions that exceeded Pinal County standards on 41 days, leading to the issuance of an order of abatement by consent that was entered into by Johnson Utilities and Pinal County in August. Hydrogen sulfide is recognized as toxic to humans in acute and chronic exposure by OSHA and the EPA. It also creates a nuisance in the form of its distinct stench.
Johnson Utilities represented to the county that it had plans to build a mechanical plant at the cost of $2.5 million, but then decided not to after it entered into an order of abatement with Pinal County, which reduced a potential fine from $1,008,000 to $20,000. The utility settled on modifications to the existing plant, including treating the lagoons with chemicals to change the pH to inhibit the formation of hydrogen sulfide.
“Why spend $2.5 million upward to $8 million for the planned expansion when a couple hundred thousand dollars would work and are working?” Hunt Management Chief Operating Officer Brad Cole said on the stand in April.
When further questioned about the slew of overages that had occurred since the order of abatement, Cole said that the utility and the county had a “difference of opinion” as to the validity of those readings. The company has continually declined to recognize readings from the monitors placed by the county as a result of pressure from nearby residents.
There have been 32 hydrogen sulfide violations recorded by county monitors since the Arizona Corporation Commission investigation began in February.
However, Pinal County Supervisor Todd House, along with Cole and manager Gary Drummond, all testified that the plant was coming into compliance. Cole testified in April that Section 11 “will not need to be expanded for another five to 10 years. It all depends on development in the area. That’s when it’s prudent to upgrade.”
Johnson Utilities did not return a request for comment on the announcement.
Resident activist John Dantico, who served as an intervener in the case to appoint an interim manager, is skeptical of the announcement. He has worked for years to get the county and state regulators to take action on Section 11, devoting so much time to research on the issue that he saw inconsistencies in Johnson Utilities self-monitoring reports to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and realized they were submitting false information before the agency itself noticed.
“Whatever Johnson Utilities says doesn’t matter — they’re not truthful people,” Dantico said. “I’m glad (the announcement is) there, but I’m approaching it with absolute skepticism until I see the thing shut down. I’m saying this for a reason.”
Dantico points to the utility’s previous backtracking on its announcement that it would build a mechanical plant before entering into the order of abatement with Pinal County. “They will change their plans as soon as the imminent threat of penalties is gone, as they have in the past. In this case, the hearing to appoint an interim manager,” he said.
Queen Creek Utilities Director Paul Gardener argued that the plant was using antiquated technology from the 1950s. In the brief submitted by attorneys represented by the town of Florence and Queen Creek, who seek to have the ACC appoint them as an interim manager, they argued that the only reasonable option was to shut down the Section 11 plant and vowed to do so if they were appointed interim managers.
The change of tune by Johnson Utilities on the Section 11 plant comes after a week of reports of low water pressure for residents across San Tan Valley.
The utility pulled water meters on 30 construction sites with no warning to reduce load on the system. According to complaints filed with the ACC, some sites have been able to maintain operations by trucking in water off site. Pinal County said it has not received complaints about the pulled meters but are aware of it. The ACC has been receiving complaints.
ACC staff performed an investigation and site inspection of Johnson Utilities’ facilities on Monday. Staff requested a procedural conference so that new information on low water pressure could be made part of the case to appoint an interim manager.
“It is staff’s belief that the circumstances surrounding the cause for the low water pressure and the well pump failure relate directly to the managerial and technical capabilities of the current management,” reads the request filed in the docket.
That night, Johnson Utilities posted the press release announcing the closure of the Section 11 plant, and the following morning, Johnson Utilities attorney Jeffrey Crockett filed a request in the docket joining staff in asking for the procedural conference, wishing to make the announcement of the plant’s closing part of the evidence in the case.
Resident Matt O’Connell, who lives near the plant and was a key organizer behind the United Citizens, an activist group that formed to push for action on the situation at Section 11, had a celebration with fellow residents upon hearing the news. O’Connell began efforts with a petition in July 2016.
“People here have been dealing with this for two decades,” O’Connell said. “I felt like God was calling me to push for justice.”
O’Connell said that the goal was not necessarily shutting down the plant, but they felt the status quo was not acceptable.
“I think it is a positive step in the right direction,” he said. “They need to follow it up with a timeline.”
O’Connell sought to work with other residents to provide accurate information and streamline the delivery of complaints and information to the county and state regulatory agencies with United Citizens.
“The citizens knew something wasn’t right, laws were not being followed and our representatives were not doing anything,” he said.
While Johnson Utilities credits House, who admitted to having a close personal relationship going back 12 years with George Johnson, with working with the utility to finalize plans to decommission Section 11, O’Connell credits San Tan Valley Supervisor Mike Goodman.
“I think the community really appreciates what he’s done. Mike Goodman really stuck to his guns and acted on it,” O’Connell said. “As a citizen, I didn’t sense that Todd House had my back. … I can’t recall one time he said Section 11 should be shut down. He has always advocated for JU from the public’s perspective.”
House has said previously that he has been working with utility representatives “behind the scenes,” to work toward a solution, but testified that he does not discuss the utility with George Johnson during the dinners they have together.
Echoing Dantico, with whom he has worked closely, O’Connell said he will remain skeptical until he sees action taken.
“I don’t think the fight is over,” he said. “We’re going to keep moving forward being a resource for the community.”