‘We’re not the place’: Yuma County residents fight hazardous waste permit

The Colorado River weaves through the Sonoran desert near Yuma, Arizona. Photo taken in 2021. (File photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

PHOENIX – An online petition to stop a Yuma waste company’s proposal to start managing hazardous materials has received more than 4,300 signatures just weeks before Yuma County officials are scheduled to vote on a special use permit for the company.

If the Yuma County Board of Supervisors approves the permit at its Aug. 7 meeting, it would allow A.A. Sydcol, an environmental services company based in Yuma County, to process hazardous material.

Many Yuma residents want to stop the county from approving the proposal, saying they’re worried about toxic chemicals potentially contaminating their air, land and water – especially with Yuma Palms Mall, agricultural fields and a housing subdivision so close to the property.

Yumans say it doesn’t help that the city has developed a reputation over the years as a dumping ground, particularly for California.

Supervisor Jonathan Lines said he’s well aware of the community’s concerns.

“I’ve heard probably 150 different residents of Yuma express their concerns, primarily that Yuma has become a dumping ground for California waste,” Lines said. “And that’s not how we want to be known.”

However, Lines also said he wants to learn more from both sides: “First and foremost, I’d like to hear (Sydcol’s) side of the story.”

Sydcol has requested the county allow it to handle and store hazardous waste on a 4.75-acre parcel of land that now houses a solid waste transfer facility, according to the special permit request, which it applied for on Jan. 7.

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The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in September 2022 approved a permit to allow the company to handle and store hazardous waste. And the Yuma County Planning and Zoning Commission has given initial approval for the special use permit, but the Yuma County Board of Supervisors will make the final decision.

Some of the waste would come from California, and it would include chemicals such as acetone, butanone and methanol – all flammable liquids – and benzene, an explosion hazard, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Yuma County resident John Adriatico, who started the petition July 7, said hundreds of thousands of gallons of hazardous materials will come into Yuma, with much of it produced in California.

“Nobody in Yuma County is going to benefit from this – only the owner of Sydcol, Charles Templer, a California resident,” Adriatico said. “And I want to make the people of Yuma County aware that we’re not the place, that there’s something here that’s threatening our health.”

According to the ADEQ draft permit, the facility would have a maximum limit of 176,660 gallons of hazardous waste.

Templer said the company is hesitant to put a percentage on how much waste will come from California if the county approves the special use permit.

He added that although non-hazardous waste from California currently makes up “a good percentage” of the company’s business, if the permit were approved, much of the hazardous waste would come from local sources.

“We already receive some non-regulated waste from a Yuma military base, and we expect that to go way up when we can receive the hazardous (materials),” Templer said in a phone interview.

“We’re looking at hopefully being able to receive waste from the large generators in Yuma, including the military bases, city of Yuma, Yuma County. So we are not accepting it currently. Can’t speak with certainty, but the anticipation is the waste will be – a large percentage will be locally generated.”

Templer also said the company could eventually accept waste from other states in addition to California and Arizona because the Department of Defense approved Sydcol as a waste facility for military use.

The Yuma Planning and Zoning Commission approved a special use permit at an April 25 meeting. But it met with community resistance at the meeting, according to a news report from KYMA.

It met with more resistance from Yuma residents on June 5, when the board of supervisors met to vote on the issue. Sydcol requested the decision be pushed back to Aug. 7 to allow the company to address community concerns, KYMA reported.

Although the zoning commission said the proposed development would not materially affect or endanger public health and safety, it did acknowledge the potential dangers of a catastrophic toxic release. Such a disaster could contaminate water supplies, irrigation and sewage systems and would require a shutdown of these facilities, according to a staff report to the commission.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit to allow A.A. Sydcol to handle and store hazardous waste in Yuma County. The proposed space is shown here. The county also must approve a special use permit. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Department of Environmental Quality)

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit to allow A.A. Sydcol to handle and store hazardous waste in Yuma County. The proposed space is shown here. The county also must approve a special use permit. (Photo courtesy of Arizona Department of Environmental Quality)

The zoning commission, citing the 2030 Yuma County Comprehensive Plan, said Yuma County is in a high-risk area for earthquakes. A quake could cause structural damage to a hazardous waste facility, possibly resulting in multiple toxic releases and “catastrophic response problems,” according to the report.

The area also is at high risk for liquefaction – a process where soil turns to liquid due to ground shaking from an earthquake, the report read.

The majority of land parcels surrounding the facility are being used for industrial means: junk yards, an auto repair shop and a waste and recycling business. These would not be affected by the facility’s daily operations, according to the report. But the parcels to the north of the facility are designated as “prime farmland” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There are also several residences to the east, southeast and south of the facility, all of which would be affected if there were a release of hazardous materials.

Yuma provides agriculture for much of the United States and is known as the winter vegetable capital of the world.

According to Visit Yuma, roughly 90% of all leafy vegetables grown in the United States from November through March are grown in and around Yuma.

The city also overlooks the Colorado River, a water source for 40 million Americans and Mexicans, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

If there were a disaster at the facility, firefighters would likely respond first. Rural Metro Fire and city of Yuma fire departments have publicly come out against the approval of the permit, KYMA reported. The facility is within the six-minute response time for Rural Metro, which would be three miles away, according to the zoning commission’s staff report.

“This is the wrong location. If something happens – a release, an exposure or worse – the city of Yuma Fire Department will almost certainly be asked to protect the public from dangers that will be present,” Yuma Fire Marshal Kayla Franklin said in a statement. “Responding to a hazardous materials incident is inherently challenging, and even more so within a densely populated area.”

Sydcol has been operating in the city of Yuma since 2005 but moved to its current location in Yuma County in 2018, Templer said. Yuma County is home to more than 200,000 residents, according to Census Reporter.

As it operates now, Sydcol takes in non-hazardous waste in small containers, accumulates them into larger loads and sends them to local landfills, Templer said in a July 14 radio interview.

In 2011, the company agreed to pay a $30,000 fine for “hazardous waste violations,” according to a statement from ADEQ. An employee was burning materials in an open metal pan to conduct an “open flame ignitability” test, which wasn’t the proper procedure, the statement read.

Authorities mailed public notices to properties within 300 feet of the hazardous waste facility, the city of Yuma and relevant agencies and stakeholders, according to the zoning commission’s report. But the March report noted that staff had not received comments from residents in the notification area.

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Now, community members at large have organized.

Yuma residents gathered at Lute’s Casino to plan their objections earlier this month.

“Lute’s Casino was packed and the turnout exceeded our expectations,” Adriatico said.

Adriatico said he will submit the petition to the board on Aug. 7. Signers implore the board to vote down Sydcol’s permit request and insist that no hazardous materials should ever be transported to, stored or processed in Yuma County.

Adriatico, a resident of Wellton in Yuma County, said he works for the state as a developmental disability support coordinator. He’s never organized a campaign like this before but was moved to action when he heard about Sydcol’s proposal on the news. When he realized there wasn’t an organized effort to stop it, he created the petition.

“I decided to create a Facebook group and a petition because the one thing I was really afraid of (was), will this sneak past the people of Yuma if we’re not united? And I thought that was a very real possibility,” Adriatico said.

He called on Yumans to reach out to the board of supervisors and let their voices be heard.

Lines, the Yuma County supervisor, said the board has a lot to consider.

“We don’t want to put into risk any of our agricultural base, which is who we are primarily,” he said. “And then, talking with Rural Metro and Yuma Fire Department, they’ve expressed concerns. And if the professionals are expressing concerns, I have to take that into serious consideration.”

Ole Braatelien oh-lee bratlin
News Reporter, Phoenix

Ole Braatelien expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. Braatelien is a content distributor and writer for The Western Journal and was editor-in-chief for The Voice, Glendale Community College’s student newspaper.