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.

This is exactly the sort of local, consensual environmental regulation Governor Fife Symington has publicly extolled. (Doug Cole, the governor's spokesman, did not return repeated phone calls or respond to a written request for an interview with the governor.)

Six months ago, Symington voiced his environmental views in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.: "Obviously, we have to manage our land, water, air, timber, minerals and wildlife with care. Just as obviously, that duty is usually best understood and carried out by the people living on that land."

The governor explained that "environmentalism--stripped of the quasi-religious nonsense that today often goes with it--amounts, in the end, to simple stewardship."

But a New Times investigation shows that Symington's variety of simple stewardship has hamstrung environmental protection that even business acknowledges is important to Arizona's future.

During the Symington administration, the aquifer protection section has never received the kind of basic support that would allow it to regulate adequately.

And even as the program struggled with understaffing, Symington's legislative allies, along with business lobbyists, have worked to weaken the aquifer protection law DEQ would be enforcing, if it did have the necessary manpower.

Republican revolutionaries say they want to streamline environmental regulation, cutting costs yet protecting our national heritage.

But a review of hundreds of enforcement and permitting documents in DEQ's aquifer protection section shows that the Symington approach to environmental enforcement has produced precisely the opposite result: higher costs to business, along with inadequate protection of the environment.

The review shows that:
* The aquifer protection program has been chronically underfunded and understaffed. The budget has remained flat at $1.9million for three years, and a recent study suggests that the staff of 33 would have to be increased by 75 people to deal with a huge permitting backlog.

* DEQ has insufficient staff to meet a legislative mandate that all backlogged permits be issued by 2001. So, at the Legislature's urging, the department has begun planning to "privatize" by using environmental contractors, who usually work for industry, to help with permitting work, raising serious conflict-of-interest questions.

"These consultants have to do business in Arizona," says David Baron, a lawyer for the Center for Law in the Public Interest. "There may not be a direct conflict of interest, butthese consultants have to do business, and if they get a bad reputation for being hard on industry, they can't get business.

* The many mines and industries that have been unable to obtain aquifer protection permits must operate under temporary permits. DEQ officials admit they cannot track all of the industries and mines with these temporary permits. So DEQ has no idea whether they are complying with the law.

* DEQ has allowed some mines to delay getting their permits for years, while forcing some small businesses--businesses that pose far less risk to underground water supplies--to go through the process sooner.

* Public files on companies are often incomplete, and staffers in the aquifer protection section admit they do not know the status of all cases.

The confused recordkeeping in the aquifer protection section creates situations that would be perfectly at home in a novel by Franz Kafka.

Take, for example, the baffling case of Lawn and Garden Supply, a wholesale distributor of garden supplies, including pesticides and fertilizers.

Lawn and Garden had either one or two socalled dry wells (there is some confusion inDEQ records about the number) on its property. The dry wells were used to collect rainwater and other run-off and to funnel it into the ground.

In 1989, under the theory that Lawn and Garden might be sending wastewater laced with pesticides and fertilizer underground, DEQ's aquifer protection section ranked the company the most dangerous potential polluter in the state. It was, in the eyes of aquifer protection bureaucrats, more environmentally threatening than even the largest copper mine.

Despite the ranking, DEQ did not take swift action.
In fact, later in the year, DEQ concluded that there actually was no groundwater contamination that could be linked to the company's wells.

The company subsequently sold some of its land to the City of Phoenix, which had plans to widen a street. One of the dangerous (or, perhaps, innocuous) dry wells was located on that land. The city sealed the well and paved it over.

But in 1990, DEQ told Lawn and Garden that it needed to get an aquifer protection permit for the well it had sold to the City of Phoenix.

Nothing happened until 1993. By then, Lawn and Garden had itself been sold. The new owner hired a lawyer from a high-priced firm, who explained to DEQ quite a few times that the dry well, which had never been linked to any significant groundwater contamination, was now under a street and was no longer owned by Lawn and Garden Supply.

DEQ responded by sending files on the company to the agency's hazardous-waste section, which conducted an on-site inspection to see if Lawn and Garden's unpolluted property was in violation of hazardous-waste laws.

It wasn't.
A May 1995 letter from the hazardous-waste section, referring the company's case back to the aquifer protection section, is the last document in the Lawn and Garden file at DEQ.

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