By Monica Alonzo
By Ray Stern
By New Times Staff
By Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Monica Alonzo
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If you're surprised to hear an environmentalist suggest -- even in jest -- that DEQ be dissolved, don't be. In its 12-year history, DEQ has been under attack from all sides: the business community, which says it drags its heels in granting permits; the Legislature, which says it's unresponsive to information requests; and environmentalists, who say the agency is too friendly to industry. (Samantha Fearn, lobbyist for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, did not return calls.)
If DEQ is sunsetted, the Legislature and governor have two options: turn over control of many environmental cleanup efforts to the federal government, or assign the agency's various tasks to other state agencies. For example, give the Department of Water Resources control over water-pollution enforcement.
Jeff Bouma, a Phoenix environmental attorney who has represented business interests and neighborhood groups as well as the Sierra Club and Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, says, "I'm of the opinion, just abolish DEQ. It ain't worth spending the money. I would love to see DEQ sunsetted. The Republican leadership has proven they can't be trusted to do anything responsible on the environment.
"If DEQ gets sunsetted, the Environmental Protection Agency takes over, Arizona becomes a much better place. So I'd just as soon they shut the whole fucking place down and quit pretending to protect the environment. Right now, DEQ is basically a waterboy for industry and uses its resources to pretend to protect the environment, but it rubber-stamps every project that comes along, it doesn't do enforcement and, quite frankly, it ain't worth a bucket of warm spit."
DEQ director Schafer insists her department can be reformed. In early December, the state auditor general is due to release reports on three areas of concern regarding water quality -- the aquifer-protection permitting (AAP) process, the Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund (WQARF, the state's version of the federal Superfund program, which does remediation on polluted groundwater), and the underground storage-tank program. All three have been under siege for years.
And with good cause, according to Sandy Bahr.
Schafer says the aquifer protection permitting program is backlogged because the department inherited more than 1,000 permits when it was created in 1987. Bahr counters that the real problem is that the mines have chipped away at the law, making it less potent and trying to gum up the permitting process. DEQ and the Legislature have allowed this to occur, she says.
"I think the mines' theory is if they can delay being permitted long enough, the ore will either run out and they will be off to South America or they will have gutted the APP program to a degree that it just won't matter," Bahr says.
Schafer has high hopes for WQARF. She says recent appropriations have brought the program up to speed, and that there is better communication with the regulated community because of the creation of the WQARF Advisory Board.
Bahr observes that the committee is made up almost entirely of industry representatives and is bereft of environmentalists.
"It's a who's who of polluters or their attorneys," she says. "They usually meet during the middle of the day . . . so, as you might imagine, there is very little public input."
Further, Bahr says, WQARF laws are much more lenient than the federal law. For example, with DEQ's permission, it is possible to conduct successful remediation without bringing water up to safe drinking standards. During the last legislative session, Hull signed a bill that shifted additional costs from the polluter to the public.
"Should it matter if a company has to tighten its belt a bit to clean up a mess it made?" Bahr asks.
She points to the Mission Linen Uniform and Linen Supply case as an example of WQARF's inefficiency. The Tucson site contains unsafe levels of tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, and the Environmental Protection Agency wants to list it as a Superfund site and get it cleaned up. Governor Hull has written to the EPA, opposing such a move and claiming that WQARF will take care of it.
But, as Bahr observes, the Mission Linen site has gone untreated for years, on the state's watch. She mentioned that in an August letter to Hull -- which went unanswered.
As for DEQ's underground storage tank cleanup efforts, Schafer acknowledges that the program -- which, thanks to industry's efforts at the Legislature, allows for polluters to bill the state for up to 90 percent of cleanup costs -- is tremendously backlogged. But she says the department is catching up, and that should be reflected in the upcoming audit report.
Bahr calls the underground tank program "another mess. Even some of the industry people have referred to it as a huge welfare program. To be fair to DEQ, the Legislature jerks them around every year on this and changes the law, so it is a moving target. Frankly, it is such a mess that I cannot even bear to spend time on it."
Speaker Groscost is concerned about the state's vehicle-emissions program. He says he has been requesting air-quality figures from DEQ for almost two years, and the department has balked. (Nancy Wrona, who runs DEQ's air-quality division, did not return calls.)
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