Environmental Lawsuit To Stop Yavapai County Jail is Dismissed

The lawsuit to temporarily halt the construction of the new Yavapai County jail because of environmental concerns was dismissed Tuesday, January 19th, 2021, by Yavapai County Superior Court Judge Michael McGill.

Prescott Valley journalist and paralegal, Bill Williams, filed a lawsuit on September 3, 2020 after he was given an environmental report about polluted soil at 1200 Prescott Lakes Parkway in Prescott – the site where construction started in August for a new county jail.

Williams, who earned a Master’s of Science degree in Journalism from Iowa State University, was shocked by how many pollutants were reported at the site by Speedie and Associates, an environmental engineering firm from Phoenix. That environmental assessment is now posted on the county’s website, as is Part Two which Speedie completed in early December that describes how much work “could” be done. The two reports were non-binding recommendations to the County Board of Supervisors.

Williams’ pleadings in the case included Speedie’s findings of volatile organic compounds, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, chromium, di-n-butyl phthalate, diesel and kerosene and reports of leaking underground storage tanks which showed concentrations of aromatic hydrocarbons above acceptable residential soil remediation levels. Williams has been vocal about the pollution and he points to topographic maps in the first Speedie Report showing how the jail site can drain downhill into Granite Creek and eventually Watson Lake.

“The phase one report was alarming, so I sued the County Supervisors because I felt they were not doing enough to safeguard my health and others’ health, and I mentioned citizens’ rights groups and experts on the matter who agreed with me.”

The request in Williams’ lawsuit was for the court to halt construction on the jail until environmental remediation at the site progressed.

Two of Williams’ exhibits in his case were written by a local chemical engineer, Richard MacLean, and our state legislator Noel Campbell, both of whom concurred on some of Williams’ claims and raised new concerns of county liability going forward.

But the judge dismissed Williams’ lawsuit for reasons not connected to the pollution. In fact, none of the court proceedings or pleadings by the Defendants ever denied that pollution, in concerning concentrations, are present at the site.

The judge ruled against Williams on technical issues raised by the Defendants, claiming Williams lacks standing to file suit, and that he failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

The judge, in his “under advisement ruling” has asked the three-attorney defense team to write the Court’s Order, which is common in cases like this.

“Philosophically speaking,” Williams said, “I won. The county may never have posted the Speedie Report for the public to read, and thousands of Yavapai County residents from Prescott to Sedona would not have known about the polluted site if I had not filed the lawsuit.”

Williams has been reporting on environmental pollution around the country for decades including Love Canal, New York and a toxic waste site in New Mexico.

“I was taken aback by discouraged residents of the Prescott Lakes community who told me they bought homes because of the local beauty and clean air. One said she gets upset when driving down the hill out of the neighborhood and seeing the piles of bulldozed debris. One woman said she smelled noxious fumes when she drove Prescott Lakes Parkway. And one man asked me why the Supervisors would build a jail in the middle of a resort town,” Williams told Enews. Williams said other residents also asked why the County bought an old landfill as a condition of ownership of the proposed jail site.

THE PHASE TWO REPORT

The phase two report is now on the county website .

It contains a color map of 12 soil sampling locations, and findings and recommendations including the finding of volatile organic compounds and the use of a rubber barrier as a protective measure. “The use of a vapor barrier is expected to suppress the vapor concentration to negligible levels,” says the report but the report goes on to warn that if a rubber barrier is used under the jail’s concrete slab, it could increase the potential for slab curling and water entrapment under the slab. The color map shows the 12 places where Speedie sampled soil.

“The County Supervisors did not publicly discuss the two reports nor did they hold public hearings on the matters, and that seemed to be negligence to me,” said Williams. “You would think that the three-attorney team would have said ‘we have it under control, Mr. Williams, we have remediation plans,’ but maybe the County public relations guy didn’t want the information out there.”

Williams’ journalistic instincts tell him this is a larger story waiting to be written. But he says the truth may be buried.

“We may never know why our former county supervisor Carol Springer was in such a hurry to buy the polluted ground for $2.8 million [at 14 acres that comes out to $200,000 an acre- Editor]  from the Bunker family who operated Bunker Sawmill at the site for decades, or why the County was in such a hurry to buy the closed, adjacent landfill,” said Williams. Prescott eNews reported on the issue and published the warranty deed signed by Springer. Springer died a few years ago.

“Dead men tell no tales,” said Williams. “Equally concerning is the former owner who died.”

The first Speedie Report, page 23 says “… inability to conduct an interview with the past property owner is considered a significant data gap. It is our opinion that this data failure may impact our ability to identify recognized environmental conditions on the property and may affect the conclusion of the report.”

But right after Prescott eNews published the first report on Williams’ lawsuit, Williams began getting anonymous tips.

“One gentleman who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said he knows where the Bunkers are and what the company did at Prescott Lakes Parkway and what the company does now. He gave me directions to their new location.”

Williams’ tipster disclosed the whole history of Bunker Sawmill and that patriarch Keith Bunker has died but Mrs. Bunker is still alive with an extended family in Utah. Internet and ancestry-type searches easily locate the Bunkers and “begs the question why Speedie and Associates couldn’t find them to ask them questions about what they might have dumped at the site,” according to Williams.

Williams’ hunch was that some family members stayed behind to operate the new company – based ten miles from their former operation and the county jail site. The “tipster” said they turned their fleet of trucks into a “long haul” operation. And when Williams called phone numbers for the Bunkers provided by the tipster, the same voice came on both phone lines and said, “We know who you are and what you are doing and we are not going to talk to you.”

Williams points out the importance of this is not the drama, or Williams’ ability to investigate, but rather it is that the former owner could get immunity if he or his children or agents would simply tell environmental engineers what was spilled so the county can move forward investigating it.

“It also gets to Noel Campbell’s letter of concern regarding liability and who is liable, for how long, and for how much,” said Williams.

So, while Williams says he feels bad about losing the lawsuit, he has come to grips with the fact that he shed light on the pollution when County Supervisors would not, and he adds that he represented himself against the three County Attorneys listed on the lawsuit: Sheila Polk, Matthew Black and Benjamin Kreutzberg.

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