The state’s top environmental regulator says he will not allow a Scandinavian defense contractor to continue burning rocket propellant and other waste chemicals at an east Mesa site located within a mile of several subdivisions.
Talley Defense Systems was seeking a 10-year hazardous waste permit that would have allowed it to burn up to 60,000 pounds a year of ammonium nitrate, ammonium perchlorate and other chemicals used in its products, which include rocket launchers, automobile air bags and air crew ejection seats. The company’s burn site is northeast of Thomas and Higley roads.
Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Director Steve Owens said Friday that Talley has not needed to burn such chemicals lately and should not be allowed to do so in the future. He acknowledged that public outcry following a Tribune report into the proposed permit contributed to his decision.
“It was very clear that people in the community were reacting to that, and I don’t blame them,” Owens said.
Still, Owens said he had been reluctant to simply deny Talley’s application because the hazardous waste treatment facility permit, also known as a “Part B” permit, also would have compelled the company to initiate cleanup activities at the site, which is contaminated with lead and perchlorates.
Instead, DEQ will find another way to commit Talley to cleaning up the contamination, he said, such as a revised permit that prohibits burning or a more limited “corrective action order.”
Talley is still authorized to burn its chemicals in Mesa until January under an annual air quality permit issued by DEQ, but Owens said that permit probably will not be renewed.
“We have told Talley that it’s not likely we’re going to allow them to burn anything out there,” he said.
Talley did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Since a public comment period for the proposed waste permit began Nov. 4, several Mesa residents have complained that development has crept too close to the Talley site to justify continued burning of chemicals.
Since Talley opened its facility on state trust land in east Mesa in 1966, it has disposed of excess chemicals by burning them in the open air. It burned more than 10,000 pounds of rocket propellant in 2004 but has since decreased the quantity of excess chemicals burned and in 2006 began shipping the bulk of its waste to a disposal facility in Louisiana.
Talley’s application for the hazardous-waste permit stems from a list of requirements ordered by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge in 1989 after the company was found to have caused excessive lead contamination in the soil. Talley has since detected a build-up of perchlorates — linked to thyroid problems in humans — in groundwater underneath the burn site, DEQ documents show.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report dating back to 1980 noted the potential for a perchlorate problem at Talley’s burn site but did not recommend additional testing or cleanup activities.
The EPA inspection report states environmental officials at that time believed perchlorate contamination was present in the soil. However, they declared the site a “low priority for inspection” because of its topography and remote location. But in the years that followed, homes, businesses, churches and schools have been built near Talley’s plant.
Greg Edwards, environmental programs specialist for the city of Mesa, said Mesa ordinances do not allow city officials to consider the impact of environmental contamination when considering approval of new subdivisions.
“No, we don’t do that,” Edwards said. “That’s up to you who wants to build there.”
There is no federal standard for safe perchlorate levels in drinking water, although both DEQ and the EPA continue to study its effects. Most health officials consider 14 parts per billion enough to affect human thyroid function.
In 2004, DEQ conducted a study of perchlorate contamination in Arizona’s groundwater, taking samples from 35 test wells statewide. It did not sample groundwater near the Talley site, but did test for perchlorate in groundwater underneath the north Phoenix site of the former Universal Propulsion Co., whose products and open-burning activities at the time resembled those of Talley’s.
An analysis of the groundwater found 130 parts per billion of perchlorate, the highest known concentration in Arizona. Universal Propulsion, now a Goodrich Co. division known as Aircraft Interior Products Propulsion Systems, was ordered to clean up the contamination and has discontinued open burning.
Talley was purchased in March by Nammo AS, based in Raufoss, Norway. Nammo is primarily owned by the governments of Norway and Finland. Company spokeswoman Sue Kobyleski has told the Tribune that Talley did not burn any chemicals in 2007 but still hoped to reserve the right to burn small quantities of “research formulations” if needed.
Research formulations are untried chemical mixtures whose explosive properties are unknown, and Kobyleski said the U.S. Department of Transportation prohibits companies from shipping them to off-site disposal facilities.
But Owens said Universal Propulsion attempted to use the same argument before DEQ forced that company to stop burning altogether.
“We don’t agree with that assessment,” he said.