by Toni Denis
When Yavapai County recently moved forward on building a new jail, the majority of those opposing it didn’t want the 18% property-tax increase to fund construction and operation, or were simply against its location within the City of Prescott. Now another reason is gaining attention even as construction has begun: its location next to an unmonitored landfill, with the potential for emissions of toxic vapors or other unseen contamination.
An argument for more data
State Rep. Noel Campbell of Prescott said he got involved when constituents began calling and writing him, asking for his help in having another environmental review done of the site, which is on Prescott Lakes Parkway close to the Granite Dells. He sponsored a bill to protect land in the Dells by having it designated as a state park. While the bill did not pass, he is still advocating for it. Some of those in favor of the park contacted him with concerns about the location of the jail site near Granite Creek and the Peavine trailhead leading into the Dells.
Campbell says the potential for toxic outgassing is reason enough to suspend construction and more fully test and monitor the site to comprehensively determine that it is safe. “To me it was never the issue do we need a jail or not,” Campbell said, “but (its location) could be a problem when there are inmates in there 24/7 and staff in there for long periods of time.”
Campbell wrote to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) asking for a response to the public concerns. The department, which received more than 50 letters from Prescott citizens, reviewed its findings at the site and concluded that further testing could be done to ensure it is fully compliant with environmental standards. Since then Campbell followed up with a letter asking ADEQ to pressure the City to follow through on those suggestions.
Campbell’s main points include:
• Two of the three wells used to monitor the closed Sundog landfill were cross-gradient (not down-gradient) relative to groundwater flow beneath the landfill, making them ineffective for monitoring.
• A lack of a surface seal and silt collection in the third monitoring well (LF-1) produced unrepresentative sample results.
• There is no ongoing sampling of soil; the soil-sampling done in September occurred during the driest part of the year, when it’s less likely to produce accurate results.
• Bulldozing the top layer of land prior to soil-testing rendered the results inaccurate for vapor-testing.
In addition, Campbell points out that liability could be an issue for the County, since detainees who get sick could sue for toxic environmental exposure and potentially win if there’s any question of the safety of the site. He pointed to a case in Kentucky as an example in which an inmate sued over plans to build a prison on a contaminated site, and this kind of issue has been a problem nationwide.
Campbell notes that the ADEQ has provided suggestions to the County for conducting further tests, but it has no ability to force the issue since it already approved the site. The lack of monitoring and a liner in the landfill factor into his feeling that the jail should not be built there.
“I’m thinking about years from now, after all the Supervisors are gone, and the County and taxpayers are on the hook,” Campbell said. “It’s like a freight train rolling downhill.”
Two of the newly elected County Supervisors say the lack of data on the extent of the soil contamination and possible dangers motivates them to push for reevaluating construction of the jail on the site. Both had opposed building a new jail prior to the environmental issues being raised. Donna Michaels, elected in District 3, opposed it as being unnecessary, and favored investing more in diversion programs. Harry Oberg, in District 1, opposed the jail as too costly and the 18% property tax increase as too great a burden, especially as businesses and individuals struggle with lost income during the pandemic.
The issue of potential environmental pollution at the site adds a layer of argument against the project, the Supervisors-elect say. They will take office Jan. 15.
“I do believe this environmental matter gives us a unique opportunity to save face due to this and that we have no choice but to do a continuation until this matter is resolved,” Michaels said. “It’s a wholly different matter for the reason that people expect us to have the right response to environmental issues with concern and stewardship for the impact of the land on the community and the public health. …. I don’t know how we get around the issue on this without doing something.”
Oberg said he had talked to environmental experts, too, who said that monitoring wells for the landfill and more soil and vapor sampling are needed, particularly since the soil was disturbed before the tests were conducted. “There’s lots more work to be done,” Oberg said, adding his belief that at least one other Supervisor may be willing to reconsider a vote on the site, making a majority.
An abundance of caution
Joe Zarnoch, a retired environmental specialist, wrote to ADEQ pointing out that the landfill was operating from the 1930s to 1986, closing before environmental regulations were in place that would have required monitoring for hazardous emissions.
Gary Beverly, Chair of the Yavapai Group of the Sierra Club, confirmed that club member Zarnoch had investigated the complaints about the jail site and the landfill, and based on his findings the Sierra Club on both local and state levels is concerned about the closure of the landfill, but not the jail site. The group wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency complaining that the ADEQ had closed the landfill without requiring ongoing oversight.
“It seems like ADEQ really did some sloppy work there, and it ... could possibly create some health and safety conditions (of concern) in an occupied jail site, but we think those potential health issues could be easily mitigated if the County just looks at it,” Beverly said, adding that the ADEQ is required to follow EPA regulations, but failed to do so in that case. He said that if there are toxic emissions, the County could prevent safety issues by implementing precautions in construction of the jail complex.
Jack Fields, Assistant County Administrator and an attorney, asserts that the area is not a brownfield site because such sites are defined as abandoned industrial property where the land may still contain hazardous contaminants. The site has had previous environmental reviews in 2016, 2018 and 2020, which can be read in the documents section on the County website yavapaijustice.com. A report from 2016 outlines some of the cleanup work done to remove asbestos and barrels of contaminants from the site. He adds that even if it were considered a brownfield site, the pollution is considered “low-grade,”making the site appropriate for redevelopment.
“Prior to purchase of the Justice Center site, the County identified contaminants on the property due to the operation of a small sawmill, and engaged in an extensive environmental survey and cleanup program to ready the site for redevelopment as Yavapai County’s Justice Center,” Fields wrote in an email. “The County’s environmental consultants tested the site many times for methane, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and heavy metals. The County then performed the remediation necessary to ensure the property is safe for construction of the Justice Center.”
Fields added that the ADEQ found the jail site has no contaminants at levels that present a hazard, but because of additional requests by the public, the County is following up on its requests for more
“In an abundance of caution, and based on ADEQ’s non-binding recommendations in early October, the County is testing the site again for methane and VOCs. We expect the report back from those tests within the next two weeks,” Fields wrote. He said the County is working with project architects and engineers to “ensure that the closed landfill and previous use of the property do not present a hazard to the occupants of the Justice Center, and that it is and will remain a safe place to work.”
Toni Denis is a frequent contributor to 5enses.