Water Treatment Plant Makes Neighbors Sick

La Voz, News Report, Valeria Fernndez, Translated by Cristina Fernandez-Pereda Posted: Aug 19, 2009

TOLLESON, Ariz. -- Something smells rotten at the Waste Water Treatment Plant in Tolleson. For locals, who barely leave their homes because of the odor, it's not just the smell. Several neighbors say the gases emitted by the plant, located near Avenue 91 between Buckeye and Lower Buckeye Streets, have damaged their health since they moved to the area.

"My head hurts all the time and one of my daughters is suffering from eye irritation," said Judy Smith, from Puerto Rico and mother of three girls. "This didn't happen before. I'm worried about my daughters' health."

Fatigue, breathing problems, asthma, nausea and nose bleeds are some of the symptoms that neighbors say are a result of the gases coming from the factory, which they say increase at night.

"It's a health problem and we want someone to respond," said Elise Content, a resident who lives one block away from the plant, in Farmington Park, a 900-apartment building complex built in 2004.

Contento will present 6,000 signatures from residents and businesses in the area during a public hearing at the Maricopa County Air Quality Department (MCAQD).

The hearing is part of a process to renew the permissions that the plant needs to operate in Tolleson, which is supervised by Maricopa County authorities.

In October 2007, after hearing nearly 100 complaints from locals about the smell and health problems, MCAQD told the plant that it was in violation of rule 320. This rule indicates that plants must reduce air pollution and certain gases.

"The problem here is that the plant is too close to residents' homes. There's no wastewater treatment that doesn't have a negative effect on communities around factories," said Marina Chew, environmental engineer and member of Sierra Club, a national group advocating for environmental preservation.

"There are gas emissions next to where people live, and there shouldn't be any in residential areas," she added.

But the situation is far more complex than it seems.

Tolleson affirms that the plant, headquartered in Phoenix and operating since 1968, was built before the urban developments in the area. The plant processes near 17 million wastewater gallons for Tolleson, Sun City and Peoria.

"Our plant is in compliance with regulations and it has always been," said Reyes Medrano, Tolleson administrator. The city of Phoenix argues that the area where homes were built, such as Farmington Park, right next to Avenue 91, had been designated as a residential area since 1988 and was approved by the public.

Phoenix companies stipulated that developers should submit documents to the homebuyers about the plant and its effects, said Jacob Zonne, who is responsible for planning the communities of Estrella and Laveen.

But not all residents feel that's the case.

"When we moved in, the owner told me they were going to place a cover over the plant and I believed him," Smith said.

Mardie Jones, a lawyer in Tolleson, says the situation is similar to that of someone moving close to the airport and complaining about the noise.

"We can't take it anymore"

Ginger and Jim, a retired couple, moved to the neighborhood in July and they say the smell is affecting their health.

"We can't take it anymore. We are going to sell our house for half the price we paid," Ginger said. She asked for her last name to remain private because she's afraid she won't be able to sell the house.

Ana Aguayo, a neighbor of four years who's been living three blocks away from the water treatment plant, says her husband suffers constant headaches because of the smell.

"I want to know why this is happening. I never thought about it when I bought the house," Aguayo says.

Sonya Ruiz, another neighbor, says that "the smell has gotten worse" and she has had to visit her doctor three times because of breathing problems.

Looking for a solution

The water treatment plant is emitting, among other things, a gas known as hydrogen sulphide. The gas is easy to detect because it has a particular smell, similar to rotten eggs.

According to Chew, the gas can cause nervous system and breathing problems, especially among children and the elderly.

Frank Lovecchio, a toxicologist at the Banner Poison Control Center, said the gas can be harmful to health if present in high quantities, but that it has not been proven to be harmful in small amounts. The smell is usually noticeable when its presence is at least 0.0047 parts per million.

The new permit under public consideration will only include one change. It requires that the water treatment plant use special covers to seal all of the tanks containing wastewater while being processed by microorganisms.

Todd Martin, supervisor at the permits division of MCAQD, indicated that the tanks were identified in a study as the main cause of hydrogen sulphide emissions.

The permit also requires the water treatment plant to keep the hydrogen sulphide levels below 0.03 parts per million and to do regular tests to make sure this is the case.

Medrano says the city of Tolleson is still considering the costs of these measures.

The change will be effective as soon as MCAQD responds to the public questions presented at the hearing, which could take up to two months. Tolleson could also appeal this decision.

Some residents like Contento aren't sure this is the best solution and want more research to be conducted at the residents' homes to test the gas level in the air. The studies conducted to date have taken place in the city.

"People shouldn't be afraid to complain about this. If they don't, nobody is going to ask them," said Thomas Pea, a neighbor who says his and his son's asthma have worsened since he moved to Farmington Park, close to the plant.

Translator Katherine Hines contributed to this report for La Voz.



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