Town residents slam UA toxic dump
The history of the UA's Page Trowbridge Ranch landfill spans five decades, but its legacy may well endure for thousands of years.
A report released this week accuses the University of Arizona of engaging in a 30-year pattern of evasion and neglect in dealing with the now-closed hazardous-waste landfill near Oracle.
Chemical and radioactive waste buried at the landfill has long been an issue with Oracle residents who claim the site will eventually contaminate their only water source.
The UA Page-Trow-bridge Ranch Radioactive/Toxic Waste Landfill Report was written by Oracle resident Web Parton, a freelance writer who spent six months researching the issue.
Parton's report consists of 80 pages of text and 400 pages of references - many of which are memos exchanged between the UA and various state agencies and private firms that have been involved with the Page Ranch site over the years.
In an interview with the Arizona Daily Wildcat last week, Parton described the painstaking process of sifting through literally hundreds of documents in his attempt to retrace the history of hazardous waste at Page Ranch.
"It was a long drawn-out process," Parton said. "In their own words, many of the things they said helped me to understand what went on."
Oracle citizens began voicing their opposition to the Page Ranch landfill in the early 1980s. Since then, a number of area residents have become involved with trying to get the site cleaned up.
Cliff Russell, another Oracle resident who helped Parton research the report, said local citizens have been fighting an uphill battle for far too long.
"You try to get something fixed using the normal channels and it takes so long you get buried," Russell said. "The thing that really is discouraging is you have an institution that is educating people on things like ethics - and yet the things they do themselves are so heinously wrong."
When questioned about the report, Herb Wagner, assistant director of UA Risk Management and Safety, contested the factuality of the report.
"What we've got here are statements and documents taken out of context to put his point across," he said.
'Back then, there were no regulations'
The UA originally purchased the Page Ranch site in 1941 for a total price of $20 from J.T. Page, a retired street-car conductor who donated the land for research. At that time, the UA intended to use the site for arid-lands studies.
From the end of World War II until 1962, the site was mainly used to store low-level radioactive wastes that were produced in laboratory experiments, according to the report. There are no records on the type, quantity or location of radioactive materials that went into the ground during this time.
"Back then (before 1962) there were no regulations on the disposal of radioactive materials," Wagner said. At the time, burying it in the ground was thought to be better than pouring it down the drain, he added.
Page Ranch was considered an ideal location for storing hazardous waste because of the area's low rainfall, high rate of surface evaporation and the depth to groundwater immediately beneath the site.
"Between the surface of the soil and groundwater there is 500 feet of clay that acts as a natural barrier," Wagner said.
According to UA estimates cited in the report, roughly 280 tons of radioactive material were buried at the site prior to 1962.
In addition to radioactive material, chemical wastes from UA labs and other facilities were later shipped to the site in glass, plastic and metal containers that were routinely thrown into open pits, according to the report.
The outrage begins
Broken containers often resulted in explosive chemical fires when acids and other volatile compounds mixed together. Fires were also set intentionally to dispose of the waste, according to a UA memo cited in the report.
The report states that burning at Page Ranch took place over an 11-year period, during which the fires were often doused with water to put out the flames.
According to Parton's report, one such incident in 1978 was brought to the attention of Pinal County authorities who, thinking a plane had crashed, arrived at the site to find UA workers tending an open-pit fire.
The workers convinced the county officials that their actions had been standard procedure for many years. But after this incident, the UA could no longer afford to continue disposing the waste in this manner.
"That kind of broke it open," Parton said. "A whole host of people then got in line and said, 'You can't do this here.'"
Wagner acknowledged that the UA's early methods of waste disposal left much to be desired.
"Pouring it into a pit and setting it on fire was not the best way," Wagner said.
According to the report, pressure from the Pinal County Supervisors in 1978 compelled the UA to start documenting their dumping activities at Page Ranch.
Following the burning incident, Parton said the situation heated up when the Environmental Protection Agency became involved.
"In 1981, the EPA laws changed and they (the UA) had to file for interim permit status to continue their operations," Parton said.
The request was denied and the UA ultimately failed to gain the interim status that would have allowed them to continue dumping at Page Ranch through 1995.
In 1984, Oracle citizens formed an ad hoc committee to demand that the UA stop dumping at the site and take appropriate action to stabilize it.
In the end, the UA decided in 1986 to close the landfill when it became apparent that the site was becoming more of a liability with each passing year.
The actual dumping site itself consists of an untold number of pits or "cells" that were dug over the years. The more recent cells dug in the 1980s are lined with black plastic, while the older ones are not.
Many of the newer lined cells are filled with "lab packs" - sealed 55-gallon steel drums packed with smaller containers of toxic waste and absorbent material.
The material in the cells includes everything from caustic acids to the rotted carcasses of laboratory animals used in radiation experiments, the report stated.
All of this material is embedded in a highly permeable layer of alluvial sands and gravels located roughly three miles up the aquifer from Oracle's only water source.
Long-term solution or quick fix?
Cited in Parton's report is a letter dated April 15, 1993 from Lon Stewart of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality Hazardous Waste Permits Unit. The letter was sent to Steve Holland, director of UA Risk Management and Safety.
In the letter, Stewart expressed concern about the wastes buried in unlined pits, stating, "the most acceptable remediation would be to dig up and remove the known steel drums and saturated soils in the landfill."
Holland then sent a letter dated April 21, 1993 to the Risk Management Division of the Arizona Department of Administration stating that the ADEQ's recommendations would, according to 1986 estimates, cost anywhere from $7 million to $10 million.
Holland has been out of town and unavailable for comment since the Arizona Daily Wildcat obtained Parton's report.
Considering removal to be too costly and potentially dangerous, the UA opted to bury the site under a cap made of a compacted earth-clay mixture interspersed with layers of plastic mesh to prevent rainwater from permeating the cells and carrying toxins down into the aquifer.
After a series of proposals and counter-proposals, the cap was finally installed over the site in 1997.
Since the cap was installed, Oracle citizens have grown increasingly concerned that the UA's present containment system will not hold up over time.
"The only absolute solution to fix something like this would be to exhume all the contaminated soil and a given perimeter around that area," Russell said. "You would have a hole 1,000 feet deep with a 20-mile radius - it would be like a huge strip mine."
Despite this latest outcry from Oracle residents, UA Risk Management and Safety officials contend the measures taken to remedy the site are sufficient and the toxins stored there pose no immediate threat to public health.
"We stand behind our plan and the cap we put on," Wagner said.
Wagner said the final closure plan for Page Ranch was approved by the ADEQ in 1995 and that since its installation, the cap has been inspected monthly for defects. As part of the plan, groundwater at the site is also tested for contaminants every two years.
"Our post-closure plan is a 30-year monitoring plan required by the EPA," Wagner said. "If we have to do some changes, I'm sure we will, but I think that cap will still be there after 30 years."
Despite the UA's assurances, Parton remained convinced that the site is unsafe.
"I have a concern as a resident drinking this water," Parton said. "I don't have confidence in the UA's ability to adequately test the contaminant levels in these waters to ensure the health and safety of the people of Oracle."