Quit Polluting Our Aquifers. Please. Pretty Please.

Republican revolutionaries want environmental regulators who cooperate with business. Those who enforce Arizona's groundwater laws have to cooperate; there are too few of them to do much else.

Ed Pond was more than a little insulted.
No company should have the kind of constant, easy access to high-ranking environmental administrators that the American Smelting and Refining Company seemed to. Pond figured the company was trying to get him fired from his job at the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

In September 1993, Pond detailed his feelings in a memo to then-director Ed Fox and his superiors at DEQ.

"I am extremely upset," he wrote. "I cannot tolerate personal attacks ... especially when those attempts are made to my superiors in a secretive fashion."

Pond, a project officer at DEQ, had been overseeing Asarco's efforts to obtain an aquifer protection permit for more than a year. The company needed the permit to excavate and operate a new section of its Silver Bell copper mine, about 23 miles west of Tucson.

In order for Pond to write a permit for Asarco, the company had to show it had complied with a 1986 law that aims to protect Arizona's underground water reservoirs, or aquifers.

The Silver Bell, Pond knew, had a history of water-pollution problems. In 1993, he had notified another section of DEQ about "greenish stuff" discharging into arroyos just downstream of the Silver Bell. The arroyos were found to be tainted with mining by-products, including health-threatening heavy metals; Asarco was fingered by state and federal officials as the polluter.

One of Pond's main efforts in regard to aquifer protection at the Silver Bell involved a "dump leach" area. In a dump leach operation, huge mounds of crushed rock are treated with acid to release copper. Pond felt the pretreated rocks should be deposited on a thick plastic liner to prevent acid and suspended metals from seeping into the ground and, eventually, poisoning an aquifer that might be needed as a future drinking-water source.

But liners can cost as much as $1 million; they also can drive up processing costs for mines, which must take care not to puncture the protective coverings.

Asarco argued that no liner was needed. The ore could sit on bare earth, the company reasoned, because a combination of local geology and an arid climate would keep any contamination from entering the groundwater.

Pond, who once worked in the mining industry, recalls that, as the dispute continued, Asarco often went over his head and complained to his bosses. Asarco claimed he had a "hidden agenda" and an "antimine" point of view, he says.

"The mines put a lot of pressure on us to approve their stuff," says Pond. "And, of course, they apply a lot of pressure the other way--with legislation and lobbying and whatever they do behind the scenes."

Asarco's Tucson office referred all questions regarding the Silver Bell to a company environmental official, who did not return phone calls.

But to this day, former environmental director Ed Fox says he did not respond to pressure from the mines when he removed Pond from the Silver Bell case in late 1993.

And, to be fair, many environmental activists view Fox as an honest administrator whose efforts to organize DEQ into an effective agency were hampered by his struggles to protect Arizona environmental laws from assault by Republican legislators.

Fox recalls telling Pond he was talented and had done a good job. Unfortunately, Fox says, Pond was becoming "the issue"--distracting Asarco from the environmental concerns surrounding the permit.

Pond was transferred to a different section of DEQ, where he no longer handles mining permits.

State records show that after Pond's ouster, DEQ consulted the Environmental Protection Agency about the liner dispute; the federal agency would not back the geologic concept upon which Asarco based its no-liner theory.

Nevertheless, Asarco got its aquifer protection permit--without paying for a costly liner.

The story of Pond, Asarco and the Silver Bell could be seen as an isolated incident, an aberration in the workings of the aquifer protection section, a little-publicized subagency of the state's Department of Environmental Quality.

But the tale of the Silver Bell is no aberration. It is a direct result of a new approach to environmental regulation--an approach that Governor Fife Symington has supported and that congressional Republicans want to bring to the entire nation.

During the Symington administration, DEQ has operated within a management style that closely matches the reform agenda of Republican revolutionaries.

State regulators are expected to work with, not police, the "regulated community." Because penalties and enforcement actions discourage industries from cooperating with the government, regulated industries should be treated not as targets, but as customers. Of course, customers have the right to complain.

And they do.
Just ask Ed Pond.

Nationally, Arizona's aquifer protection law is considered a model pollution-prevention statute. It was designed to protect Arizona's underground water supply, which, by law, must be treated as a drinking-water reserve. Its mission was to issue and enforce permits to potentially polluting industries--before they fouled the aquifers of this arid state.

It was part of the 1986 Environmental Quality Act pushed through the Legislature by former governor Bruce Babbitt. In fact, that same law actually created the Department of Environmental Quality.

Babbitt, now the secretary of the Interior, was hailed at the time for drafting visionary environmental law that focused on pollution prevention. And that law was produced through consensus among representatives of agriculture, mines, industry, cities and environmental groups.

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