More than seven months after it generated the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee’s most fractious public hearing of 2019, QuikTrip’s plan for a service station on 40th Street continues to generate anxiety for a 185-home community.
There wasn’t much the planning committee could do beyond reviewing and approving a few changes in the site plan for the facility.
And, Phoenix City Hall so far has been unable to reassure homeowners in Foothills Paseo II they have nothing to worry about a gas station at the mouth of the only road in and out of their community.
Aside from getting the attention of the Legislative District 18 delegation, principally state Rep. Mitzi Epstein, most Foothills Paseo II homeowners have only grown more troubled in the wake of city officials’ reaction to their concern.
But as recently as late October, QuikTrip’s plan continues advancing through the city’s bureaucratic machinery without producing a convincing response to the big question on homeowners’ minds: What will happen if there’s a gasoline spill?
“The people here have invested in their homes and this neighborhood, raising children and living out retirement. There are currently two, soon-to-be three, assisted living facilities operating here. We are taxpayers and constituents of the City of Phoenix and we want answers to our questions,” residents Brie Nielsen and Alvaro Diaz wrote City Manager Ed Zuercher on Oct. 23.
“We have collectively spent hundreds of hours of our personal time gathering research, contacting City and State representatives, patiently and respectfully asking questions, attending meetings, for seven months now,” they wrote.
They are still waiting for a reply.
Their anxiety arises from the unique geographical features of the site, located no more than 400 feet from a South Mountain Freeway exit ramp that will dump northbound traffic onto 40th Street right past QuikTrip’s front door.
The Arizona Department of Transportation bought the first 600 feet of frontage on northbound 40th Street from the freeway, declaring that an entrance/exit to QuikTrip from 40th would be a traffic hazard.
That left only one alternative for QuikTrip: entrance and exit would have to be on Cottonwood Way – a narrow two-lane street that is the only way in or out for Foothills Paseo II.
While residents did express concerns about the traffic nightmare this would create, their main concern involved first responders’ ability to rescue them in the event of a hazardous waste spill or a gasoline-fueled fire at the gas station.
The residents have repeatedly told city officials and QuikTrip that they are not opposed to a business being located on the site.
And they have repeatedly told both they have no animosity toward QuikTrip.
Their concerns are with the fact that the broad zoning category for the parcel permits gas stations – along with dozens of other businesses.
They say they’d have no problem with a restaurant or event a store but that a gas station is a potential timebomb created by a combination of traffic patterns and the risk of gasoline fires and spills.
Traffic hazard remains
The C-2 zoning for the QuikTrip site and several adjacent parcels allows for scores of uses, from schools to businesses.
It was approved by the city at a time when most of Foothills Paseo II didn’t even exist.
And while the freeway’s path had not yet been plotted back then, the site already appeared ideal for a gas station from a business standpoint: It’s the only one so far announced that’s closest to the freeway along the entire Pecos segment.
With the zoning already in place, the planning committee could do little beyond recommending that the city find a solution to the movement of traffic around the site.
However, city planners later determined that QuikTrip’s plan for the entire site would require a City Council vote.
So, on June 7, the company withdrew those plans and resubmitted for site development review a less ambitious one that was in “general conformance” with the original zoning.
But traffic remains a concern despite the installation last summer of a signal at the intersection of Cottonwood and 40th.
ADOT would not allow QuikTrip an entry/exit on 40th because national data show accidents and fatalities are 25 to 31 percent higher when traffic breaks exist within 660 feet of a freeway off-ramp.
Even though Cottonwood intersects 40th less than 400 feet from the freeway off-ramp, the city has limited choices when it comes to a QuikTrip entry/exit on Cottonwood.
City Councilman Sal DiCiccio’s office said the city can’t stop a permitted use on the site no matter what.
Proposition 207 – the “Private Property Rights Protection Act voters approved in 2006” – requires a government entity in Arizona to compensate a property owner if it enacts a regulation that causes a devaluation of someone’s private land.
The proposition reportedly forced ADOT to shell out $450,000 for closing off 40th Street to the site and if the city were to take some action that prevented QuikTrip’s use of Cottonwood, Phoenix likely could face a far bigger bill.
Another option may depend on the independent traffic engineering study the city ordered QuikTrip to provide. That study is now under city review.
Depending on the study, the city might have to find a new way for homeowners to get out of their community if they are forced to evacuate or it might try to order QuikTrip to make some of its land available for widening Cottonwood Way.
Residents doubt there’s any alternative emergency route that could be built without considerable expense since a wash runs behind Foothills Paseo II.
Spills and rescues
Homeowners have repeatedly voiced concerns about a gas spill or fire on the site – whether it involves careless motorist filling up, a tanker ruptured in a crash or an underground tank replenishing that goes wrong.
Gasoline spills create a unique and specific risk because vapors are heavier than air, toxic and highly flammable. When a spill occurs, the area surrounding it must be isolated, open only to first responders in full hazmat gear.
That perimeter, called a “red zone,” can have a radius of anywhere from 150 to 1,000 feet. A spill on the QuikTrip site would inevitably create a red zone that would make Cottonwood impassable.
Foothills Paseo resident Derrick Johnson has a unique perspective of those matters: he is a captain in the Phoenix Fire Department and a 40-year veteran firefighter.
Stressing his views do not represent the Phoenix Fire Department and that he was speaking only as a resident, Johnson told AFN months ago of his concerns.
He noted that even without a fire, gasoline vapors can be dangerous in the aftermath of a spill.
The vapors travel with treacherous speed, and, depending on the direction of the wind, can settle around residential and garage doors or culverts, drains and ditches.
Fumes can cause an array of respiratory and other harmful health effects.
Residents repeatedly communicated over the last few months with Zuercher and the Phoenix Fire Department about these matters, pressing for detailed answers on how the city would handle a spill.
In an Aug. 30 email, city Executive Assistant Fire Chief Scott Walker said his department has “full capabilities to manage an emergency incident.”
“If an incident were to occur, the Phoenix Fire Department would utilize the full force of our system to safely manage the incident and to provide for the safety of our community,” Walker wrote residents, adding:
“As a result of each incident presenting its own unique challenges, it is not possible to answer your questions.”
During more recent email exchanges with Zuercher, residents expressed their dissatisfaction with his responses, noting Walker also had admitted that residents could not be evacuated via Cottonwood and that they’d have to simply stay indoors until the emergency was over.
But residents asked what would happen if someone got so sick as to need an ambulance or if the vapors were so intense that staying indoors would be no barrier to their effects.
On Oct. 1, Zuercher wrote them, stating the Fire Department’s procedural manual for dealing with hazardous material spills “provides a wide array of possible applications to address the risk encountered at any given incident.”
“While the potential for an evacuation zone does exist,” he wrote, “the use of a large-scale evacuation zone is rarely required on most hazardous materials incidents encountered within the City of Phoenix.”
He added, “If an emergency incident occurred that required the evacuation of the Foothills neighborhood, the Phoenix Fire Department is prepared to effectively meet this need.”
Furious with the reply, residents wrote Zuercher on Oct. 23:
“Hundreds of residents of Foothills Paseo II deserve to know that a hazmat specialist has reviewed the specific, unique conditions of this situation and provided a specific plan regarding how the Phoenix Fire Department will ensure our safety. … We are not satisfied with the vague and conflicting information we have received thus far.”
QuikTrip representatives met in late August with some of the residents and heard their concerns, reportedly assuring them of the company’s good safety record.
In September, Charles Huellmantel, an attorney who represented the company before the planning committee meeting in April, told AFN:
“The site was zoned for a fueling center, convenience store and car wash nearly two decades ago. The rights to build a store are still in place today. The site design evolved throughout the process due to feedback we received, including from neighbors at the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee.
“We reoriented the store toward 40th Street and removed the car wash, something we were not required to do. We have done both of those things in an effort to work with the neighbors and because we agree that these suggestions make a better QuikTrip. While we understand that some would prefer a drive off of 40thStreet, and we would as well, this is not something that ADOT will allow. Our current site plan takes this into consideration.”
Data on gas spills nationally or in Arizona are difficult to find.
A National Fire Protection Association report found that between 2004 and 2008, 5,020 fires occurred at gas stations across the country annually, resulting in two deaths, 48 injuries and $20 million in property loss.
With approximately 117,000 gas stations in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, that means a fire has been recorded for every 13 stations.
Cronkite News last year analyzed tens of thousands of incidents logged by the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center since 1990. The center keeps reports on incidents nationwide that involve hazardous materials, chemical spills, railway deaths, collisions and leaks.
In Arizona from 2007 to 2017, it found, the 2,000 hazardous-material incidents ranged from small-scale violations, like a restaurant pouring grease into a sewer, to millions of gallons of hazardous chemicals accidentally leaking into the environment.
Environmental damage looms
Scientists also say gasoline stations could cumulatively be causing long-term environmental damage to soil and groundwater in residential areas in close proximity to the stations.
Researchers with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health five years ago said its research indicated small spills may be a larger issue than previously thought.
“Gas station owners have worked very hard to prevent gasoline from leaking out of underground storage tanks,” said study leader Markus Hilpert, PhD, a senior scientist in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But our research shows we should also be paying attention to the small spills that routinely occur when you refill your vehicle’s tank.”
Over the lifespan of a gas station, Hilpert told sciencedaily.com that the concrete pads underneath the pumps can accumulate significant amounts of gasoline that penetrate the concrete and escape into underlying soil and groundwater.
“Even if only a small percentage reaches the ground, this could be problematic because gasoline contains harmful chemicals including benzene, a known human carcinogen,” Hilpert sayid.
Hilpert and a colleague also developed a mathematical model to measure the amount of gasoline that permeates through the concrete of the gas-dispensing stations and the amount of gasoline that vaporizes into the air.
They discovered that vent pipes at gas stations released 10 times the amount of benzene, a known carcinogen, than previously assumed, adding that current regulations are insufficient to protect people from all toxic chemical exposure near gas stations.
A study published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology found an elevated risk of childhood leukemia among children living near gas stations.
The Foothills Paseo residents’ best hope may emerge from the city’s review of the traffic study it requested from QuikTrip.
Epstein said she’s trying to address the problem, stating:
“All parties tell us they are following all laws and ordinances. But it’s still a life-safety problem, so maybe we need some adjustments to laws or ordinances. Your home should be your safe harbor. I’m working with these neighbors to protect their safety and also to protect the safety of all Arizonans by avoiding the start of such safety problems.”