Revolt in the Desert: Plan for Poison Gas Plant Divides Town

Times Staff Writer

For Frank McVey, the rebellion began with a casual conversation. Over Christmas, he mentioned to his nephew that Union Carbide had announced plans to build an arsine and phosphine gas plant near town.

“He said, ‘That’s fine and dandy if you like World War I gas in your back yard,’ ” recalled McVey, a retired elementary school principal.

“We got to looking into dictionaries and encyclopedias and calling on the phone,” he said. “Immediately, what came to mind was Union Carbide . . . Bhopal . . . many people killed . . . disaster.”

And so began an unprecedented citizens movement that, in less than two months, has galvanized dozens of retirees, school teachers, parents and otherwise gentlefolk in Kingman into an angry and effective army of resistance. They have circulated petitions, formed picket lines, crammed meeting halls and kicked off an effort to recall two City Council members.


36-Acre Desert Site

Their aim is to block Union Carbide--more precisely its Linde Division--from building a 25,000-square-foot complex on 36 acres in the high desert of northwestern Arizona, where the company hopes to repackage and manufacture some of the deadliest gases known.

Part of the complex would serve as the new home for the company’s Phoenix Research Corp. subsidiary, which, after bitter and protracted negotiations with the city of La Mesa and San Diego County air pollution authorities, finally signed an agreement to leave its La Mesa location by Dec. 31.

But, rather than finding relief from environmentalists’ protests over their presence, Phoenix Research landed in another controversy that has caught the company off guard. The force of the grass-roots protest in Kingman has sharply divided this normally quiet town of 12,000.


“The situation has pitted neighbor against neighbor,” said Brian Johnson, the 26-year-old editor of the local newspaper, the Mohave Daily Miner. “A councilman’s comment that it was getting like a war is sadly true.”

Citizen rebels say they are riled not only because of the specter of an accidental toxic gas leak, but also because they feel betrayed by public officials who worked quietly with Linde for about a year to buy the land and obtain the permits to handle the gases.

“The public feels like it was deceived by the public officials,” said Dennis Kenney, an artist who is heading the recall effort. “It’s based on the fact that they didn’t tell us it was coming.”

Proponents of the Linde venture, however, say those against the chemical company are anti-growth alarmists who are fueling a rebellion with misinformation, exaggeration and fear. One of their favorite criticisms is how the rebels conducted a recent petition drive against Linde.

“Here’s the deal. Super Bowl Sunday, I walked into Smith’s Grocery store and there was a little old lady sitting there,” said James A. Wilkinson, executive director of the Mohave County Airport Authority. “She said, ‘If you don’t want them to kill us, sign this.’ Now, come on!”

Town Torn Apart

Never before has such an issue torn apart the conservative and easygoing citizenry of Kingman, about 90 miles southeast of Las Vegas. It is the kind of place where the main street is named after cowboy actor Andy Devine.

But concern about the local economy is not taken lightly. People still remember the Duvall Co. copper mine closure in 1980, which put hundreds of people out of work. And in December, the only airline serving Kingman suspended service.


So protective are local businesses that the three Kingman car dealers pulled all of their advertising from the Daily Miner after finding out the publisher’s husband went elsewhere to buy a new Ford Ranger for Christmas.

It was with enthusiasm, then, that members of the Mohave County Airport Authority first received an inquiry from Union Carbide last Spring about buying land at the industrial park near the landing field, located about 7 miles out of town.

With an estimated value of $10 million, the proposed chemical plant would add $300,000 to the tax rolls and eventually create jobs for 40 people for such white-collar types as chemists and technicians.

As far as Union Carbide was concerned, the Kingman area was perfect.

The company intended to consolidate its operations currently based in La Mesa, Dallas and Keasbey, N.J. The trick was to find a place remote enough to allay fears of a toxic gas leak, yet close enough to some city to offer access to utilities, a railroad and a decent quality of life for its workers.

“Yeah, we can put this in the middle of the desert,” said Frank Gasser, a Linde engineer who has moved here from New Jersey to operate the gas plant. “But how many people can you get to work there?”

In addition, he said, Kingman was in the “epicenter” of the company’s primary market for the gases--the burgeoning semiconductor industry stretching from Southern California to Dallas. For those reasons, the town came out first on a list of 39 potential sites in Arizona and Nevada, he said.

Confidential negotiations between the company and the airport authority eventually settled on a parcel at the edge of the industrial park. Abutting the site downwind is an abandoned 40-acre landfill, an added safety buffer in the case of an accident, Wilkinson said.


Initial Application

In May, the company filed an initial application with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality for a permit to handle the toxic gases. “Some of these gases are poisonous and, as such, require extremely careful handling and processing,” the application says.

One of the gases is ethylene oxide, a flammable, toxic liquid used to kill microorganisms on bandages and medical devices. Shipped in 20,000-gallon rail cars, the liquid gas would be diluted and repackaged into 32-pound cylinders for shipment to customers, the application says.

Other gases include arsine and phosphine, which are used to alter the electrical properties of silicon and other materials in semiconductors. The gases are among the deadliest known; exposure to as little as 500 parts per million of arsine would freeze a person’s hemoglobin and cause instant death.

Initially, Union Carbide planned to ship the gases to the plant to be repackaged into smaller containers.

But that changed when the company filed a second application Oct. 28 to manufacture 8,960 pounds of arsine and 8,400 pounds of phosphine a year at the Kingman plant.

The second application was filed 10 days after Phoenix President Randall Kelley stood up at a La Mesa community forum and announced that the Union Carbide subsidiary would leave the San Diego area for an undisclosed location by the end of 1989.

“We just hadn’t made up our minds as to whether we wanted to move that facility to Kingman,” said Jim Secor, director of communication for the Linde Division. “We decided at that point in time that it was a good place to put that facility as well.”

The decision came at a time of renewed agitation by La Mesa residents, who were angered that the toxic gas manufacturer was still operating out of its Alvarado Road plant despite promises to leave nearly two years ago.

La Mesa residents were further angered by the revelation that despite their tough talk, La Mesa city officials had declined to employ a zoning law that could have declared Phoenix Research a public nuisance and forced it to leave town.

With public pressure mounting, Phoenix Research and the city signed an unusual written agreement spelling out the terms of the company’s departure. In return for the city’s promise not to resort to the zoning law, the company agreed to close shop by the end of 1989.

Agreement Signed Dec. 9

A Phoenix Research attorney signed the agreement Dec. 9.

Ten days later, on Dec. 19, Union Carbide officially purchased the Kingman airport site for $307,000.

Until then, most folks here really had no idea what they were inheriting, according to McVey and other angry citizens.

True, the Daily Miner published a short story July 24 about Union Carbide’s interest in building a specialty gas plant near the airport.

But the article was, in retrospect, skimpy on crucial details, McVey said. Arsine and phosphine were never mentioned by name, and the majority of the story quoted public officials as saying the operation would be safe.

Otherwise, there were no public hearings, and Kingman officials were decidedly tight-lipped about their confidential negotiations with Union Carbide for fear of blowing the deal.

“If you want a beer license, you have to go through a hearing and you have to post what you intend to do and then you get a license,” McVey said. “But you can get tons of this toxic, flammable gas and one permit takes care of it. And there is no public hearing.”

Also lacking was any public disclosure of the company’s woes in La Mesa, an oversight that Daily Miner Editor Johnson blames on Union Carbide’s “selective” release of information.

Secor said last week that he personally disclosed the company’s La Mesa difficulties to people in Kingman, but he declined to say to whom he had talked.

Yet the first Johnson or the general public heard about the La Mesa controversy came in telephone calls from San Diego reporters who were following up on the public announcement of the Kingman purchase.

“Local industrial leaders have said that story wasn’t worth reporting and glare when we even bother to ask a few questions,” Johnson wrote in a commentary published in early January. “I’d be willing to let residents be the editor on this one. Do you want to know about any new industry’s track history? Do you want to know when the town they operated in asks them to leave?”

The answer was a resounding yes. A collective consciousness began dawning on this community, which boasts a heavy number of retirees.

sh Copies of Newspaper Stories Relatives from California began sending copies of San Diego newspaper stories about Phoenix Research. Talk spread around town. The army of would-be rebels mushroomed overnight, from 16 at their first living room meeting to more than 50 the next day.

Eventually, the group had to convene its sessions at the Methodist Church, and on Jan. 13 it adopted the name Citizens Against Toxic Substances, or CATS.

“This is a national trend. The protection of the environment is the trend for the 1990s,” said Madeline McVey, Frank’s wife and a retired elementary school teacher.

“I didn’t talk like this two months ago,” she said. “My children did, and I thought ‘It is nice of them to worry about the future.’ ”

Aside from an accident, Madeline McVey said the rebels are worried that Union Carbide’s presence would attract other companies that handle toxics. During the furor over the gas plant, it was revealed that the industrial park also contains a new plant for handling carcinogenic PCBs.

When Union Carbide officials came to town Jan. 17 for the official ground-breaking ceremonies, more than 100 CATS members threw up a picket line near the industrial site.

They sat through a company forum to explain the proposed gas plant--a forum that included a pep speech from Mayor Fred Nagel of La Mesa.

“Union Carbide conjures up evil thoughts, but this is no evil, evil division,” Nagel told the crowd. “They are buying more land at the industrial park than they have to.”

Yet those and other comments failed to sway the crowd, which shot back some pointed questions and comments.

“It didn’t influence us, it was too packaged,” Madeline McVey said. “I guess we were not supposed to be so well informed.”

Following the forum, CATS launched an anti-Union Carbide petition drive that garnered 6,028 signatures within a month. CATS leaders hailed the petition effort as an impressive show of force, especially since population in the city and its outlying areas is only about 20,000.

But local officials discounted the political message from the petitions, pointing out that there were a number of irregularities with signatures.

Wilkinson said Union Carbide conducted a computer analysis of the petitions and found 800 duplicate signatures. Kingman Mayor Carol Anderson said her review of the petitions shows numerous signatures from elementary school children and out-of-towners, including cartoon character Mickey Mouse.

“There are bona fide signatures on there, I’ll give them that,” said Anderson, who estimated that maybe 50% of the names were valid. “What I do give CATS people credit for is organizing.”

‘There’s a Dangerous Risk’

Like most public officials in support of Union Carbide, Anderson said she is “concerned but not running scared” about the potential health risks posed by the plant.

“Yes, we realize there’s a risk there. Yes, there’s a dangerous risk. But the controls that will be put in by the company, the controls of the Department of Environmental Quality, I feel are the best possible. . . . I feel very comfortable with this information.”

Anderson’s position has further agitated the rebels, and a number of them have begun a recall effort against Anderson and Vice Mayor Bob Budd after learning the two never disclosed that they were among a number of public officials who were briefed about the plant by Union Carbide in October.

“Politically, this is really dumb to discount 6,000 people,” said Kenney, leader of the recall movement. “I wondered, ‘Is she insane? Is she dumb? Is she confused? Or is she crooked?’

“If there wasn’t such a threat to the public health, we could let this thing go,” Kenney said. “But we need informed officials.”

The community sentiment, however, has not been lost on Union Carbide, and last month it flew two charter planeloads of public officials and CATS members to La Mesa to inspect the existing Phoenix facility.

In addition, Gasser has roamed this small town since December emphasizing that the Linde Division has an impeccable safety record.

Routine emissions at the proposed Kingman plant would send about .027 pounds of arsine and .017 pounds of phosphine into the atmosphere a month, according to Union Carbide’s application to the state.

In the event of a catastrophe--for instance a 33-pound container of either gas is let loose--a special “scrubber” system would remove 99.6% of the emission before it got into the atmosphere, Gasser said.

By the time the gas travels to Union Carbide’s property line at the industrial park, it will have dissipated to a concentration of .03 p.p.m.--an insignificant amount, he said.

‘We’ve Had No Fatalities’

Gasser and other Union Carbide officials also stress that the Linde division was not responsible for the release of 45 metric tons of pesticide that killed 3,330 in Bhopal, India in December 1984. Last month, Union Carbide agreed to pay a $470-million settlement for the worst industrial disaster in history.

“We’ve had no fatalities, no injuries and no impact on the community from any of our operations,” Gasser said.

Despite those confident assertions, Union Carbide recently bowed to the public pressure--at least temporarily. On March 1, Gasser informed the Mohave County Board of Supervisors that the company would take the next two weeks to look for a less controversial site farther out in the desert.

“I’m a plant manager,” explained an exasperated Gasser in an interview last week. “I don’t give a . . . where the plant is. I just want a plant to manage. If it is 15 miles, 20 miles out of town, that’s fine. If it reunites this community, that’s fine.”

Yet the company’s gesture has divided the community even more. When Gasser made a similar proposal to a CATS meeting on March 1, the group immediately voted to reject the idea and ask Union Carbide to get lost altogether.

In many minds here, that reaction by CATS inspired a counter-movement of sorts by the people in town who think Union Carbide is getting a raw deal. For instance, the local florist sent a silk arrangement to the mayor with the inscription, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down!”

And at last Monday’s City Council meeting, the majority of the overflow crowd spoke out on behalf of the chemical giant before council members voted 6-1 to welcome the gas plant back into the airport industrial park if it fails to find a home elsewhere. The vote went Union Carbide’s way despite a surprise warning from doctors that the local hospital couldn’t cope with a toxic gas disaster.

‘We’ve Had Enough’

“The great, silent majority is now coming up and saying, ‘We’re fed up! We’ve had enough!’ ” said the airport authority’s Wilkinson.

Whether the council meeting represents a turning tide in Kingman remains to be seen, but Union Carbide is taking no chances. It recently hired a New Jersey-based research firm to conduct a telephone survey of Kingman residents.

“It’s not a survey to determine popularity,” said Secor, Linde’s director of communication. “It’s to determine what are the real concerns, and how would people react to certain information in terms of those concerns. We’re really trying to find out what’s bothering the people, if in fact they are being bothered.”

Secor and plant manager Gasser both said it is unlikely that Linde will abandon its plans for the Kingman area, particularly since Phoenix Research has signed the agreement to leave La Mesa by Dec. 31. Starting over would not give the company enough time to build an arsine and phosphine plant and ensure that its supply of the gases is uninterrupted, they say.

“We are very optimistic about the situation in Kingman and we do expect to build in the Kingman area,” said Secor. “We do believe we have found a home.”

The McVeys, however, say the recent council vote will not discourage the rebels, who will continue to fight even though Union Carbide possesses all of the permits necessary to begin construction immediately.

“It’s a discouragement, but it’s not a defeating discouragement,” said McVey, who even rented a copier for a month to help reproduce the piles of documents and news clippings in his study.

“It’s a time to regroup and analyze the situation and use tactics that, in military terms, allow you to attack again,” he said.