Opponents of the South Mountain Freeway have asked an appellate court panel to prevent blasting and further bridge construction in the Ahwatukee segment of the controversial thoroughfare.
Stating that blasting “will permanently destroy valuable aspects of the environment,” lead plaintiffs Ahwatukee-based Protect Arizona’s Resources and Children and the Gila River Community filed the request last week with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District.
The court also set Oct. 19 for oral arguments on freeway opponents’ appeal from U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa’s July 2016 ruling that allowed the Arizona Department of Transportation and developer Connect2020Partners to begin work.
The court already has rejected one request by opponents to halt construction while the appeal is being heard. There is no time requirement for the court to act on the request to halt blasting. Jurists gave no indication when they might rule, especially since the government must first file a written answer to request.
“I’m not overly optimistic about this one, but we had to try,” PARC President Pat Lawlis said in announcing the injunction request. “Blasting the foothills will definitely produce irreparable harm.
Despite the fact that both sides concluded filing thousands of pages of briefs, exhibits and legal arguments months ago, the Ninth Circuit only last week set the date for oral arguments.
PARC attorney and Club West resident Howard Shanker said both sides will each have 20 minutes to speak. That time could go longer if the judges have questions.
The $1.7 billion freeway – the state’s most expensive highway project in history – will run 22 miles between the I-10/59th Avenue interchange in West Phoenix and the Chandler/I-10 interchange.
It will provide a bypass for an estimated 140,000 vehicles a day – half of them trucks – around the heavily congested Broadway Curve and downtown Phoenix.
It will eliminate Pecos Road and require next year blasting a 200-foot-wide path across three South Mountain peaks.
But the blasting that is targeted by last week’s injunction request is more immediate – and closer to home for scores of Ahwatukee residents near the freeway’s path.
The Arizona Department of Transportation announced recently that blasting will be needed after all to break down rock in areas west of 24th Street and beyond Desert Foothills Parkway.
Although ADOT’s announcement did not give a timeline for the blasting, spokesman Dustin Krugel said, “Best guess right now is mid-August.”
In their injunction request, PARC and the Gila River Community alleged construction already has left a trail of devastation in the Ahwatukee sector of the freeway.
“Prior to the clearing, grading and construction undertaken by defendants, Pecos Road was bordered by desert flora and largely pristine vistas,” the injunction request states. “Much of this flora has already been destroyed and fauna has been displaced.”
“The initiation of blasting, continued clearing, grading and construction creates further irreparable harm to plaintiffs and the environment,” it also contends.
Besides preventing the blasting, opponents also are trying to stall further bridge construction pending a ruling on their appeal.
ADOT is preparing to pour concrete sometime later this month on the framework for the bridge span at 17th Avenue sometime this month and are working on a second bridge span at 40th Street. That work will likely be done at night to avoid the excessive daytime heat.
The highway agency several weeks ago suggested work is proceeding even faster than anticipated, although the target date for opening the freeway remains late 2019.
The injunction request takes note of that and implores the appeals court to slow down the work, if not stop it altogether, because of the widespread impact on the community.
“The construction-related activities are also irreparably harming plaintiffs members’ recreational and aesthetic interests, including but not limited to their interests in the naturally functioning ecosystems of the area, hiking, cycling and viewing wildlife and nature,” it states, adding:
“Defendants have spent, and continue to spend, millions of dollars on the construction of this Freeway and to commit vast amounts of public and private resources to race to completion – notwithstanding that the agency decision is on appeal. This ‘bureaucratic steamroller’ is considered irreparable harm.”
The lengthy request reviews the opponents’ long-standing bases for their contention that freeway planners performed inadequate environmental studies and ran roughshod over Native Americans’ concerns for South Mountain, which they consider a sacred site.
“Many studies have now shown that people who live, work, or attend school near major roads have an increased incidence and severity of health problems that may be related to air pollution from roadway traffic,” it states, adding:
“Reviews of the literature have concluded that near-roadway traffic emissions may not only trigger and exacerbate asthma symptoms, but also contribute to the development of asthma in children.”
Noting 17 schools are within a half-mile of the freeway, in addition to hundreds of residents on both the Ahwatukee side of the thoroughfare and in the Gila River Community, the request states:
“The public has an interest in ensuring that proper scrutiny and analysis is provided by the government before an irreparable commitment of public lands/resources is made.”
ADOT last month said that crews have been using heavy equipment since April to break down rock and that “this method has been effective thus far.”
However, it said freeway developer Connect 202 Partners “anticipates that controlled rock blasting will be necessary in some locations.”
“Controlled rock blasting uses small amounts of timed charges to break rock into smaller, more manageable pieces,” ADOT stated.
It called such blasting “a standard construction technique used in many areas of the nation for many years without damage to property.”
ADOT said Connect 202 Partners “will ensure that ground vibrations” from the blasts will use “modern techniques” and “comply with local and federal safety and ground vibration standards.”
Those standards exist to avoid impacting nearby homes and other structures.
“Any blasting activities will be in accordance with industry best practices using only proven and safe methods,” ADOT added.
“Controlled rock blasting has been used to shape essential roadways throughout the world, including the initial construction of Pecos Road previously,” said Rob Samour, ADOT’s senior deputy state engineer for major projects.
“Connect 202 Partners has hired an experienced team, including a blasting engineer, blasting consultant and vibration monitoring expert with close to 100 years of combined blasting experience in Arizona and across the United States,” he also said.
ADOT said the blasting “will not result in any damage to nearby structures,” although the freeway developer had offered to residents within a half-mile of the area a free inspection to document the condition of their homes in case of structural damage claims.
The blasting in Ahwatukee could go on for as long as a year, several times a week and at different locations.
In the injunction request, Lawlis states, “If the pouring of concrete and other elements of bridge construction are allowed to continue, it will result in irreparable harm to the environment.”
“There is also ongoing harm/destruction not related to blasting or bridge construction, to flora and fauna in the right of way that is resulting in irreparable environmental harm – much of which could have been averted if the injunction we sought at the onset of the appeal would have been granted.”