La Paz County zoning officials reject plan to build smelter in farming community

By: - December 9, 2019 11:57 am

The child of a local protester holds a sign reading “NO SMELTER HERE” at a Dec. 5 public hearing where hundreds rallied against a plan to locate a smelting plant southwest of Wenden, Arizona. Photo by Phil Soto for Arizona Mirror

UPDATED: The story has been updated to reflect a revision to the application for the smelter that reduces the amount of chlorine stored on-site from 30,000 gallons to 10,000 gallons.

WENDEN, AZ – Facing a large and sometimes raucous crowd of area residents, the La Paz County Planning and Zoning Commission rejected a proposal Dec. 6 to build an aluminum smelter less than a mile from the farm community of Wenden, Arizona.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 opponents of the project gathered at a local community center for a special meeting by the commission. The commissioners normally meet in the county seat of Parker, located 60 miles northwest, but agreed to meet just outside of Wenden at the request of the local county supervisor.

The project is proposed by Alliance Metals, which is operated by Technocon International, a Florida-based company led by “Russian-born businessman Jacob Gitman and his son, Larry,” according to The Arizona Republic.

Over the course of nearly four hours, speaker after speaker condemned the project as ill-suited for the community, an agricultural area that attracts scores of retirees and other visitors to RV parks and recreational sites nearby. Except for the opening presentation by the company, no one spoke in support of the project.

smelter meeting in wenden
A standing-room-only crowd of protesters attended a Dec. 5 public hearing to oppose a plan to locate a smelting plant southwest of Wenden, Arizona. Photo by Phil Soto for Arizona Mirror

Alliance Metals wants La Paz County to modify its comprehensive county-wide zoning plan to permit the project. The 2010 plan sets detailed guidelines about where residential, commercial and industrial development may occur. 

Citing overwhelming opposition to the smelter, the planning commission rejected Alliance Metal’s request to modify the comprehensive plan, then voted down a proposal to rezone the property – once home to a local cotton gin – from “rural agricultural” to “industrial planned development” and permit the construction of the smelter.

County Supervisor Holly Irwin represents the La Paz region that includes Wenden, as well as nearby Salome, the two communities that have drawn the bulk of opposition to the project.

Speaking ahead of the Dec. 6 planning commission meeting, Irwin said, “I don’t think this is responsible development. I’ve heard from numerous constituents and I’m here to support them. The majority do not want it here.”

Supervisor D.L. Wilson is a strong proponent of the smelter plant. Wilson, who also chairs the private nonprofit La Paz County Economic Development Corporation, helped bring the proposed project to the county. The other county supervisor, Duce Minor, has not said how he will vote on the smelter proposal. 

Wenden resident Gary Saiter, a chief opponent of the project, told the zoning commission that the Alliance Metals project poses “unsustainable… environmental hazards for humans, agriculture and desert wildlife.” He said the plant would emit dangerous pollutants, and its location could deter other forms of economic development tied to the area’s attractiveness to tourists and retirees.

“This type of facility does not belong in a population center, but should be at least 25 miles from one,” said Saiter, who also serves as president of Wenden Elementary School Governing Board and chairman of the board of directors for the Wenden Domestic Water Improvement District. 

About 100 children attend elementary school in Wenden.

Citing the company’s application for an air quality control permit filed with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Saiter said the facility will emit about 35 tons of hazardous pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, lead, dioxins and other chemicals, each year.

In its application to ADEQ, Alliance Metals officials compared the pollutants emitted by its plant to those of the now shuttered cotton gin located on the site, stating that “the cotton gin had very high emissions negatively impacting air quality.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the primary pollutants emitted by a cotton gin are “cotton dust”, “cotton lint” and “fine leaf trash.”

State environmental officials have approved Alliance Metals’ air quality control permit, but that permit has not yet been issued, pending payment of a fee, according to an email from an ADEQ official sent to environmental activist Scott Meyer.

Several residents said they were deeply concerned about the proposed presence and use of 30,000 gallons of chlorine at the smelter site, which Saiter alleges could pose major health risks to “residents and children” in the area, “to say nothing of the livestock.”

State environmental officials this week notified La Paz County residents who had commented at an ADEQ public hearing in September that Alliance Metals has revised its original application to indicate that it now plans to store only 10,000 gallons of chlorine at the site.

A chlorine gas leak in a Chandler in September forced the evacuation of area businesses and disrupted traffic for hours. No one was injured in the incident, which resulted from the puncture of a container holding 1,500 pounds of chlorine. The 10,000 gallons of chlorine that would be kept at the Wenden smelter is almost 70 times the amount involved in the leak that occurred in Chandler.

According to a 2014 report published by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, nearly three million Arizonans live in areas that are vulnerable to toxic chemical leaks. In worst case scenarios, according to the EPA, “The radius of these danger zones can reach up to 22 miles from the center of the incident.”

For its part, Alliance Metals officials insist the plant would be safe. The chlorine tanks, for instance, would be held in sealed concrete containment rooms equipped with leak detection sensors, said attorney Tom Galvin, who represents the company. He said Alliance Metals has also agreed to subject the facility to “third-party inspections,” and intends to train local firefighters on how to respond to leaks of hazardous materials at the facility.

Galvin told the audience at the meeting, some of whom heckled him during his presentation, that the plant offers a number of economic benefits for the community. He said that, as a result of the company’s $30 million investment in the facility, annual tax revenue generated by the site will be more than $66,000. The recycling and smelter facility will also provide 30 year-round jobs paying between $13.50 and $25 per hour, according to Alliance.

Local job fairs hosted in recent months by the company, Galvin said, attracted about 75 applicants. The poverty rate in Wenden is 25%, and it’s more than 40% for Latinos – both far greater than the statewide poverty rate of about 17 percent. The median household income near Wenden is about $25,000 a year, less than half of the statewide average of more than $53,000. 

The planning commission’s recommendation to kill the project now goes to the three-member La Paz County Board of Supervisors. The board is scheduled to consider the matter at its Jan. 6 meeting.

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James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia

James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of a major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught creative and non-fiction writing, ethnic studies, theater, literature and Latino politics at ASU. The founder and producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co., James is the author of more than 30 plays, including the upcoming “The Two Souls of Cesar Chavez.”