SAN TAN VALLEY — Residents living near a Pinal County wastewater treatment plant feel vindicated now that a new monitor shows air quality violations.
The residents in Magic Valley subdivision had been pressuring the county to add additional monitors for hydrogen sulfide gas coming from the Johnson Utilities Wastewater Treatment Plant. Last week the new monitor placed on the north side of Oasis Boulevard showed concentrations that violate regulations.
The original monitor was placed on a maintenance shed farther south from the wastewater treatment plant and behind a row of houses on Oasis Boulevard to check that Johnson Utilities was getting into compliance per an order of abatement that was issued by the county in response to years of hydrogen sulfide violations. That monitor did not show above regulation hydrogen sulfide concentrations.
For the 108 hydrogen sulfide violations between 2015 and 2017, the county settled on Aug. 21 with Johnson Utilities for $20,000 and an agreement that the utility would file a plan to change operations at the plant to keep hydrogen sulfide emissions within the legal limit. 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.
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to settle for $20,000 and an order of abatement that included measures the utility would have to take to get into compliance. Mike Goodman, R-San Tan Valley, was the only supervisor who voted to pursue increased penalties for the utility.
Citizens United, a group of residents who live near the Oasis facility, argued that the county’s findings that the utility has been in compliance with the exception of one violation since the order of abatement has been based on flawed methodology. The residents report that the problem has gotten worse since November.
Pinal County Air Quality defended the legitimacy of its monitoring system when it released the new readings.
In a report, the agency wrote “the two monitoring locations collect valid data and reflect hydrogen sulfide concentrations at that particular location and time of day, and therefore, are both representative of residents living in different areas of the neighborhood. The Oasis monitoring data has no effect on the order of abatement by consent.”
According to Goodman, representatives from Johnson Utilities tried to prevent the release of the new readings and threatened legal action against the county.
“These are citizens we’re talking about,” Goodman said. “We are a government agency that should not even be worried about a private company providing a public service coming after us with a lawsuit.”
His colleagues on the board do not dispute that account.
“I didn’t hear directly (from Johnson Utilities) but I did hear a conversation about that,” said Chairman Todd House, R-Apache Junction. “Whether they actually did it or not, it’s hard to say. If you look at the terms of the agreement (in the order of abatement) it says that both parties have to be involved for changes in the agreement. I don’t believe that JU was advised of the changes.”
House added that he did “not know for a fact” whether Johnson Utilities threatened a lawsuit if the county released the readings. “I think they were more upset that they don’t believe that they had any fair representation in what was going on, per the agreement.”
House said that he is focused on working with the utility “behind the scenes” toward a solution.
“They’ve been very forthright in their efforts to clear up the situation and they want to make it right. They are moving things in the right direction and I wouldn’t want to do anything to stop that,” he said.
Johnson Utilities officials could not be reached for comment.
Citizens United is not the only group looking into connections between owner George Johnson and Arizona officials.
The advocacy group Progress Now will be holding a press conference on Tuesday at 10:15 a.m. following the first public hearings of the Johnson Utilities rate case with the Arizona Corporation Commission at 33622 N. Mountain Vista Blvd. in San Tan Valley.
They will be launching their “AZ Watergate” campaign aimed to highlight the connections between George Johnson, the owner of Johnson Utilities, and top Arizona elected officials, including Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. “Despite a long record of delivering poor service and, at times, unsafe water to customers, Johnson has been a significant political donor, especially to Arizona Republican candidates.”
Johnson is currently facing trial on bribery charges in May alongside former Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce and top Republican lobbyist Jim Norton.
On social media, Citizens United has argued that House and the rest of the board who voted against taking the utility to court have been too soft on Johnson Utilities. They point to campaign contributions — $10,000 to House and $1,000 to Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville — as a sign that they are on the side of Johnson Utilities, not residents.
House denied any favoritism.
“I got campaign contributions from Johnson Utilities and the Johnson family because they believe in the vision for where I want Pinal County to go. It has nothing to do with asking for favoritism,” House said. “Anyone that knows me or has been around me for any amount of years knows that I am a very respectful person and I would never do anything to jeopardize what the people of the county or the people of my district think about me. It’s not for sale.”
Citizens United does not consider the current situation a “relief.” The group continues to collect reports of odor complaints through a website, with 72 reports of symptoms of hydrogen sulfide gas poisoning since Feb. 2.
Monica Cara is one of many residents who reported health issues she believes are connected to the plant. She has lived in Oasis Magic Ranch since 2011 and described her health before moving to there as normal.
Since living there she said she has been plagued by a host of symptoms her doctors have not been able to diagnose. She lost her sense of smell a few years ago, a classic symptom of exposure to the gas, along with other symptoms that she cannot explain like weight loss and the appearance of multiple benign masses.
Cara was hospitalized in August due to a fainting episode and a seizure, both of which she said had never happened to her before, along with weekly migraines and nearly daily fatigue and dizziness. She said her family has exhausted every option to find what is causing the problems: cleaning out air ducts, checking the home for mold, replacing floors and adding hypoallergenic air filters.
“Nothing is working,” Cara said. “Not a single doctor I have seen to date can diagnose me officially. ... My doctors are suggesting I consider moving because it is starting to seem environmental. ... We all want to take action against Johnson Utilities but most of these people are afraid.”
Cara is working with the Citizens United group to take action on the issue. She hopes county and state regulatory agencies will hear them.
“My children, my neighbors, my friends, they breathe this poison. I’m 26 years old, I have symptoms like I’m dying and nobody can tell me why,” Cara said. “I don’t want it to stop in a year or two, I want it to stop tomorrow. What do we have to do? How loud to we have to be for you guys to show up and say shut it down now.”