If there is one lesson to be learned from events surrounding the container wall along the border in the San Rafael Valley, it is to never underestimate the power of the individual. By now, we are all familiar with the small band of protesters who, concerned by the ecological damage created by this project and frustrated by the inaction of the federal government, shut down the project by blocking construction vehicles. But there is another story to be told, about one woman in Elgin who also felt compelled to take matters into her own hands.
Elgin resident Sue Downing had observed truck drivers pulling the containers ignoring a stop sign and swinging onto the Elgin Bridge without yielding to oncoming traffic. After several calls and emails to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office to complain, Downing decided that she had to do something to slow the trucks down.
On Jan. 9, she decided to park her Dodge truck off the side of the Elgin Canelo Rd, where she had seen the trucks making a wide swing as they approached the bridge. “My intent was to shut things down so that someone would call the sheriff,” she said. “That day I had warned the AshBritt operations manager, and I warned the sheriff’s office.” (AshBritt, an emergency management contractor headquartered in Florida, had been awarded the no-bid contract to build the container wall and then to remove it.)
Downing watched from the other side of the Elgin Bridge as a truck pulling a container swung wide to make the sharp right turn. The load tipped when the wheels went into the mud and tilted, hitting her truck, and damaging the rear fender. She called 911 as well as Jason Fawcett, the Ashbritt vice President in Whetstone.
Last fall, Downing had started seeing convoys of trucks pulling flatbed trailers loaded with the 40’ container boxes traveling south on the Upper Elgin Rd. Downing, who lives near the bridge in Elgin, watched out her living room window as these containers were hauled across the narrow one-way bridge on their way to the San Rafael Valley.
This project, begun in October 2022, was part of an executive order signed by then-Governor Doug Ducey. At the time construction was halted on Dec. 14, 2022, 1214 containers had been placed in the San Rafael Valley, stretching for 4.6 miles, according to Judy Kioski, Public information Officer for AZ Dept. of Emergency and Military Affairs.
On Dec. 21, 2022, a week after the protesters shut down work on the wall, the state and the federal government signed a stipulation that required the state to remove the containers “as quickly as possible in a safe manner,” according to environmental attorney Dinah Bear.
Many residents of Elgin and Sonoita noted these containers were hardly being moved “in a safe manner.” Complaints rose on social media about the speed and recklessness of the AshBritt drivers pulling the containers along the winding narrow roads leading to and from the San Rafael Valley.
Downing worried about the possibility of an accident with a school bus that picks kids up on Upper Elgin Rd. “My concerns were about safety,” she said. “These trucks were speeding really fast and were not yielding on the bridge. There had been several confrontational situations between local drivers and the truck drivers. I have observed the truck drivers yelling at people. I personally can tell you that once while walking my dog, where there is no shoulder, I motioned for them to slow down. Instead, the driver flipped me off and sped up. I felt like I was going to get sucked under the trailer.”
Downing stopped walking her dog along those roads for fear of getting hit. She called the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s office, asking for a deputy to be sent to monitor the speeds at which the trucks were traveling.
“We heard what she had to say,” Sheriff’s Office spokesman Gerardo Castillo told the PRT. They deployed a deputy to the area who issued 17 citations, some of which were issued to the truck drivers. “An issue was brought up and we addressed it,” he said.
Downing, however, felt the issue hadn’t been addressed. And so, on Jan. 9, she did something more – she parked her Dodge truck off the road, and then witnessed it get creamed by an AshBritt truck.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the day after her truck was hit, the majority of the containers were rerouted through Sonoita rather than Elgin. Observers in Sonoita reported the trucks speeding, as well, and there are many who questioned why the Sheriff’s Office was not more proactive in monitoring the container traffic.
Those of us who live in these rural areas are used to fending for ourselves, and for the most part we are okay with that. Sue Downing, like the protesters at the wall, took matters into her own hands and did what the federal, state and county failed to do. Her truck has been repaired and no one got hurt, but what little faith we might have in our institutions has suffered yet another blow.