For nearly a century, the enormous Douglas smelter spewed King Copper's bittersweet scent across Cochise County, lining many pockets--and countless lungs--before finally falling silent in the 1980s.
Today, another haze fills this border county, spawned by out-of-town promises, murky business ties and at least one high-ranking county official.
In November, a year-old California company called Global Energy Resources offered to invest $50 million in what's called a plasma-arc converter. Backers contend that this plant could transform Cochise County's garbage into synthetic fuel, which GER would then hawk to energy companies.
One citizens' review committee noted that GER was teaming with General Electric to pitch the plant, which would convert waste to energy. "GE representative Paul McGuire stated that GE Financial will put up a substantial amount of money to aid in funding the project," said the committee report.
Cochise County would meanwhile pledge up to 100,000 tons of garbage and similar old-tire tonnage per annum to GER. "The county will lease to GER real property on or near a landfill facility operated by the county at a nominal rent for 20 years, with options to extend the term for up to two consecutive 10-year periods for the purpose of constructing and operating a facility using GER's technology," the report said.
And so Global Energy is poised to make big bucks from mountains of garbage. But the questionable converter technology, and the way it's being fast-tracked through government channels, has many residents wondering whether the fix is in.
As this story goes to print, county officials are hashing out an initial agreement with GER--even as eyebrows are rising over the cozy little way this proposal rolled into town.
It just so happens that L.H. Hamilton, Cochise County's facilities director and the project's prime booster, has longtime business ties with Paul McGuire, a GE senior business manager who hopes to sell seven or eight pricey generators to old business acquaintance John Cummings, president of Global Energy, who has hired Robert Brown, another old buddy of Hamilton and McGuire, to spearhead this worrisome project in the hills between Benson and Sierra Vista.
Got all that? Neither do most folks in Cochise County, including at least two county supervisors.
Here's how it happened: Sometime last fall, McGuire and Robert Brown reportedly approached L.H. Hamilton with the idea of building the huge converter. Discussions were probably comfortable: The three had already worked together at Sierra Southwest Cooperative Services, a Tucson-based subsidiary of national nonprofit Touchstone Energy.
Through his GE job, McGuire has also done business with GER's John Cummings in California. And John Cummings now has Green Valley energy consultant Robert Brown--yes, that Robert Brown--on his payroll.
McGuire says he approached Hamilton "about the (county's) landfills," and whether any dumps were spewing enough methane to generate power. "There's no sense just putting the gas right into the atmosphere, which is what they're doing now," McGuire says. One thing led to another, with Hamilton complaining about high costs of running a landfill. "I told him, 'Well, there is alternative,'" says McGuire.
Soon, the GE salesman was suggesting GER. "I knew John Cummings in California, where he was a developer for power projects," says McGuire, who later happened into a conversation with Cummings that turned to trash. In particular, Cochise County trash.
Among sophisticated circles, this is called The Art of the Deal. "I wanted to sell (Cummings) some engines," McGuire says. "That's how we got back together."
Hamilton offers a slightly different take. "It had been a stated goal of the county to try to look at other alternatives other than buried garbage," he explains, "so I began a search to find somebody that wanted to try an alternative method. ... I had probably washed out a couple of dozen other companies. When GER came along, there was a consultant with APS (Arizona Public Service) who I had business dealings with in the past. They came forward and made an initial proposal."
The APS consultant? Why, none other than Robert Brown, who worked as an independent salesman for the utility, before leaving to join John Cummings at GER. Sadly, consultant Brown was not feeling quite so chatty when a Tucson Weekly reporter called his Green Valley home: he hung up twice. But in between dial tones, he did manage to holler that he'd quit working for Sierra Southwest "about two years ago." Still, he refused to answer any questions about his relationship with Hamilton or McGuire. "I don't know why you're asking me this!" he blustered.
Paul Newman is an outspoken, liberal--and often out-voted--Cochise County Supervisor who fiercely opposes the GER project. Newman calls Brown "a creepy guy," and says he's highly troubled about the snug relationship between Brown, McGuire and his own facilities manager, L.H. Hamilton. "This is just another alarm bell," Newman says. "To me, this has smelled odd from the beginning. I wondered why (GER) would approach us. I knew there was always something going on."
Tensions hit a fever pitch during a fall meeting in Sierra Vista, says Newman, when GER's Cummings "became infuriated by my questions. At that point, as Robert Brown is leaving the meeting, Brown whispers something in L.H.'s ear. And that made me feel very uncomfortable."
Newman suggests that Hamilton may be compromised. "What concerns me," he says, "is L.H.'s objectiveness in the matter, if he had a pre-existing relationship with Mr. McGuire and Mr. Roberts."
But Hamilton calls that "utter nonsense," adding that his relationship with Brown and McGuire "absolutely does not" affect this project.
If so, why did Hamilton apparently fail to disclose his buddy-club to his bosses? When asked whether he told Newman and the other two county supervisors, "Yes, they knew," he says.
"The only thing that L.H. Hamilton told me was that he knew Mr. Brown from a past association in the power business," says Newman. "And when I found out that Mr. Brown had been with APS, I thought that was the past association. Now I'd like to know if there are any money interests involved (between Hamilton, Brown, McGuire and GER)."
While Newman is regularly at political odds with his fellow supervisors, "this situation feels different," he says. "There's some funny business going on here."
Likewise, Supervisor Richard Searle says Hamilton hadn't mentioned diddly about his pals. "But it doesn't change anything at this point" regarding the project, says Searle, who describes his position on the converter as "neutral."
Just how much Supervisor Pat Call knew about Hamilton's connections remain a mystery: The supervisor didn't return five phone calls over as many days from the Weekly.
Still, twists in this odd saga don't end there. An early converter flurry concerned one Dr. Armen Kazanchian, a California M.D. who was initially listed as CEO of Global Energy--until it surfaced that Kazanchian and several other docs faced felony charges for allegedly suckering California's Medi-Cal system out of $500,000. Though charges have been dropped in this fake pharmacy scheme, Kazanchian's name was nonetheless yanked from GER's Web site.
But in January, e-mailed concerns from Southern Arizona residents were filtered through Paul McGuire, who subsequently added his own spin:
Question: "We saw on the California Attorney General's website [sic] information that suggests the CEO of Global Energy Resources [[Dr. Kazanchian]] was indicted for fraud. Is that true? If so, what is the current status of that indictment?"
Answer: "After full review of the situation, all charges were dismissed because Arem Kazanchain [sic] was a victim of identity theft," McGuire wrote.
True? "No," says Tony Lewis, supervising deputy attorney general for the state of California. "It was dismissed based on insufficient evidence to show that the doctor committed a crime."
Today, McGuire says he doesn't have the details. "You'll have to ask (Dr. Kazanchian) about that. I don't know who I heard that from, exactly."
Attempts to contact Dr. Kazanchian were unsuccessful.
Regardless, Supervisor Newman says that John Cummings, GER's president, echoed that same claim in recent Sierra Vista meeting. Contacted by phone in his Sacramento-area office, Cummings denies "ever having said that Dr. Kazanchian was a victim of identity theft."
Then Cummings sharply attacks Newman, suggesting that a deal is already in the bag--or at least that he's not counting on Newman's vote for the converter project. "To be quite frank--and you can quote me on this--Supervisor Newman is trying to bring up the issue about Dr. Kazanchian to stop this project from moving forward, because he has no legitimate reason" to stop it, Cummings says.
Activists fighting GER, however, such as Terry Nordbrock of Families Against Cancer and Toxics, says the whole shebang reeks of skullduggery. "We always hope for government to be conducted in the sunshine. You don't want a good old boy network where decisions are made behind closed doors."