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By D. Shayne Christie
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 30, 1997

UA gets approval to seal hazardous site


Ryan A. Mihalyi
Arizona Daily Wildcat

The University of Arizona has been storing toxic waste at the Page-Trowbridge Ranch near Oracle since the 1950s. The UA is currently capping the site to prevent contamination of ground water.

After an 11-year hiatus, a UA hazardous waste dump just north of the city of Oracle is being sealed in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency standards.

The landfill has been inactive for 11 years, said Steve Holland, director of the Department of Risk Management and Safety. "We've been going through a process to install a cover over the landfill."

The UA-owned Page-Trowbridge Ranch covers 640 acres near Willow Springs Road, 1.5 miles north of State Route 77, and three of the 640 acres are used for the landfill. Since the last burial of waste there in February 1986, the University of Arizona has bee n trying to gain approval for its closure plan from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

Now that the university has been given approval and construction has started to cover the landfill, the project has run into another snag.

Holland said the closure plan involves placing several layers of compacted clay and reinforced grid structures, called geogrids, in between one another to create an impermeable cap.

The project has now been delayed because the top geogrid layer is faulty, Holland said.

"The company we hired to oversee the project tested the material and it did not meet specifications," he said. He added that the faulty grid would delay the project "a week or two."

Holland said he expects the project to be finished in 60 days, depending on the weather.

The project has cost an estimated $1 million, and Holland said it will likely total $2 million before the area is secured.

The $2 million will be paid to the contractor, Granite Construction Co. of Tucson, by the state of Arizona under UA's insurance policy.

"It's state dollars paying for it, but it's not part of the university's direct budget," he said. "Under the regulations, you must have the closure plan approved by ADEQ. That is what we are doing now, and it's taken 11 years to obtain approval."

Holland said several turnovers within ADEQ, coupled with multiple revisions of the plan, caused the delay. He also said that state plans to put an incinerator and landfill facility near Mobile diverted attention from the Page Ranch closure plan.

"It's not unusual for it to take several years," he said. "This was a complex site because of the turnovers and all the various issues. It just took longer than expected."

Holland said the site was used for disposal of low-level radioactive waste starting in 1962. He said it also became a dumping ground for chemical waste in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, the UA was dumping 500 to 600 gallons of chemical waste at the site every five weeks.

"It was determined that this was a good location at the time in 1962; there were no regulations in place," Holland said. "As regulations developed and history developed, it turned out this was a very good place."

Holland said the site is ideal for a landfill because it has deep ground water, stable geology and low precipitation.

"The ground water is at 650 feet, three times the depth of the Tucson area."

The site was closed in February 1986, and the UA has been shipping its chemical and radioactive waste out of state since.

The UA asked the EPA for a waiver from ground water testing when it sought a regular permit in 1981 because the depth of the water table made it expensive to dig the necessary wells, Holland said.

When the UA sought the permit and waiver, law required that public notices be posted notifying local residents, he said.

Oracle residents became upset and eventually spearheaded the effort that led to the facility's demise.

In 1984, 950 Oracle residents, 38 percent of the city's population, signed a petition calling for removal of the landfill.

Also in 1984, a representative of a group calling themselves the "Oracle 1 Community Committee" telephoned the University of Arizona Police Department and claimed responsibility for leaving horse manure, a dummy and signs at the entrance of Risk Managemen t's building.

Former UA President Henry Koffler then appointed a committee to review long-term use of the site in early 1985.

The committee, which included two Oracle residents, one Tucson resident and two UA staff members, recommended that UA stop using the site for waste disposal.

Andy Rush, a resident of Oracle and current chairman of the Oracle Town Hall Steering Committee, said a majority of Oracle's citizens were opposed to the toxic dump at the time.

"I'm glad to hear they're doing the final work," Rush said. "I hope it is never considered again as a site. I commend the university for actually backing down and closing it. I'm glad about it."

However, Holland said, "There is still a landfill that contains chemical waste.

"We are covering that and monitoring the water," he said. "I think it is being managed appropriately at this time. There has been no impact to the water or the air."

Holland said the university does not think the site will cause harm to nearby residents.

Officials at ADEQ and the UA's Radiation Control Office could not be reached.