Wes Gullett’s unkind past dealings with South Phoenix

11 Oct 2011 08:11 pm
Posted by: Donna

I moved to Arizona in 1997 so I wasn’t familiar with the 1992 Quality Printed Circuits fire in South Phoenix until recently. This website from the ’90s, Don’t Waste Arizona, details the incident and the background and also how the community organized to fight back against government inaction in the face of a dangerous health threat.

In May 1992, state OSHA inspected the facility and noted that working conditions were severe and unsafe at the facility. There were unlabeled barrels of chemicals, untrained worker/chemical handlers speaking little English, fumes so strong in building that workers’ eyes burned, but OSHA fined the facility not even one nickel.

In spring of 1992, the county air agency which issues air pollution permits to industrial facilities questioned QPC’s air permit renewal and wrote that it was concerned that all the new chemical processes at the facility would cause a spontaneous fire in the wet scrubber (air pollution equipment). QPC replied with 32 pages of possible chemical combinations, from the letter “A” to the letter “I,” then suggested since it had spent “40+ hours working on this,” it has done enough, and that unless there is “excessive heat or light,” no fire should occur. The county air agency issued the permit anyway and the facility had a fire just a few months later. The fire started in the wet scrubber, according to all eye witnesses quoted in Phoenix Fire Department Investigation, yet the final fire report states cause of fire is unknown. Although the facility reports its toxic chemical inventory, the Phoenix Fire Department had never implemented a system to provide this chemical data to firefighters at the scene of a fire or spill.

When the fire started on August 31, 1992, at around 11:30 am, the facility’s workers try to handle the fire before calling for help. The neighboring community members call in the fire. The fire burned for 12 hours, then smoldered for a week. Plastic containers made up 20% of the facility’s contents. A thick cloud of smoke billowed high into the air, then sunk and moved along the ground and lingered in the neighborhoods. No one had warned the community to turn off their homes’ ventilation system, so chemicals and smoke invaded the homes…

…The neighborhood “committee” formed, which would later become the Concerned Residents of South Phoenix. The committee asked immediately for meetings with various government agencies to ask what happened, what went wrong, and to ask for medical assistance as the community fell ill. Many of the pets and animals in the affected community died. The representatives of the county and state health agencies both met with the committee and informed them that the common health symptoms of rashes, headaches, and hair falling out (classic signs of chemical poisoning) in the affected community were the result of “stress and hysteria” before any scientific sampling or health surveys were conducted.

Public agencies in Arizona continued to belittle and insult the affected community, while the illnesses and danger worsened:

No one came to help from the various agencies, so the community had to go to the press to ask for help. Steve Brittle of Don’t Waste Arizona, Inc. (DWA) was asked by then State Representative Sandra Kennedy to assist the community. When a press conference was staged at Martin Luther King Elementary School in October 1992, Steve and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) representative who attended the meeting became ill after being in the building for two hours. The ADEQ representative asked the ADEQ to conduct chemical sampling. Initial testing in 1992 included one of only two homes ever tested for chemical contaminants OUTSIDE the fire area by ADEQ. The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) conducted a limited health survey near the fire event in October 1992 and found that 85% of people north and east of the fire site were sick, then wrote a memo three months later. ADHS, despite repeated requests, refused to do a follow-up health survey. Later, ADHS would blame diet, cleanliness of homes their representatives admittedly never visited, and even race as a cause for the illnesses. Ty Canez of ADEQ’s Environmental Justice Program even told a meeting of the Concerned Residents of South Phoenix, “black people have bad lungs anyway.”

How did current Phoenix Mayoral Candidate Wes Gullett, then Governor Fife Symington’s Chief of Staff treat the matter? In the spring of 1994, State Senator Sandra Kennedy (now Corporation Commissioner) the NAACP and other community groups marched to the Capitol to request help from Symington. Don’t Waste Arizona’s Steve Brittle was present at the meeting. Via email he told me that Gullett told him the meeting was merely for “publicity” and not to expect the Symington administration to do anything for the community. “Symington and Gullett had no interest in protecting powerless African Americans and making a company pay to decontaminate homes and schools and provide medical attention.(that would be unfriendly towards business)”

Do you really want someone like Wes Gullett to be Mayor of Phoenix? I don’t.

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