Up in the Air

Why isn't DEQ cracking down on an alleged law breaker?

State Department of Environmental Quality director Jacqueline Schafer is apparently refusing to pursue legal action against a Yuma manufacturing plant that her staff says should be slapped with more than $2 million in fines.

But that may not be surprising, considering that the owner of the plant is a major contributor to Republican campaign coffers. And Schafer, who has spent 20 years bouncing around the country as a Republican appointee to state and national environmental agencies and boards, has a history of being reluctant to take enforcement action.

According to internal agency documents and sources within DEQ, Schafer, on May 9, rejected for the second time a detailed case prepared by her air-quality staff that recommended substantial fines against Meadowcraft Incorporated, the nation's largest maker of wrought-iron furniture.

DEQ Director Jacqueline Schafer.
DEQ Director Jacqueline Schafer.

The case would appear to be air-tight. Documents clearly show that the plant has operated without an air-quality permit for more than two years despite DEQ staff's efforts to get plant owners to comply.

Arizona law requires large-scale manufacturers such as Meadowcraft to obtain a permit before beginning construction of the facility and certainly before operations begin.

But DEQ records show that Meadowcraft broke ground on the new plant on August 28, 1997. Engineering inspection documents show construction of the plant began in September 1997.

But the DEQ didn't receive an air-quality permit application from the company until two months later, on November 21, 1997. And, records show, that application was woefully incomplete; some $13,000 in application fees also weren't paid.

Meadowcraft, which had sales in 1998 of more than $162 million, according to DEQ records, began operating the Yuma plant in April 1998, still with no permit.

The Yuma facility paints and stores wrought-iron furniture that comes from a twin plant in Sonora, Mexico. It is considered a "major source" of potential pollution under state law because it can emit tons of hazardous air pollutants.

Meadowcraft officials couldn't be reached for comment for this story.

On February 4, 1999, after nearly a year of exchanging information, DEQ compliance officers issued a noncompliance notice to Meadowcraft for operating without a valid permit.

A month later, Meadowcraft officials responded to DEQ, saying they believed the application had been submitted in a timely fashion and that the plant was not in violation.

The plant continued to operate while DEQ staff put together its case. Under state law, the company was liable for fines of up to $10,000 a day.

In November, a memorandum outlining the evidence and charges against Meadowcraft was turned over to Schafer, who at that time had been running the agency for eight months. The staff needed her approval before the case could be assigned to an assistant attorney general. The fine proposed in the memo was $1,657,200, but the "bottom line settled for" was put at $329,440.

According to department documents, Schafer declined to pursue the case.

On April 12, inspectors again visited the Meadowcraft facility. Among other things, they found the plant was using equipment different from what the company had listed on its application.

So on May 9, a second memorandum was submitted to Schafer, this time with recommended fines of more than $2 million.

Instead, Schafer told the air-quality division to "drop the case," according to sources within DEQ who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal.

Schafer is on vacation in England until June 6 and could not be reached for comment, according to DEQ's public information officer Kurt Mauer. He would neither confirm nor deny that Schafer had rejected the case. Mauer did say, however, that the case still can be pursued.

But DEQ staffers are concerned that it won't be.

Meadowcraft owner Samuel Blount is a major Republican Party contributor. And in the fall of 1996, just as plans were being unveiled for the company's twin plants in Arizona and Sonora, Blount made what appears to be his largest political contribution of the 1990s -- more than $50,000 to the Republican National State Election fund.

That money flows back into state elections around the country. In 1998, for example, Governor Jane Hull received $70,000 from the fund for her reelection bid, according to records on file with the Arizona Secretary of State's office.

And Schafer herself is no stranger to accusations of political cronyism.

After receiving a degree in economics in 1967, Schafer was a legislative assistant to Conservative Party Senator James Buckley of New York. In 1982, she went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency and by 1984 was one of three members of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, which reported directly to President Reagan.

Under George Bush, she served as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and as assistant secretary of the Navy.

Through the 1990s, Schafer served in several environmental positions under California Republican Governor Pete Wilson. She was chairwoman of the California Resources Board, a chief deputy cabinet secretary for Wilson, then director of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Throughout her tenure, she was viewed by some as an energetic and progressive voice in balancing the needs of the economy and the environment. Others saw her as a lackey for heavy industry.

She was fired from her California post when Democratic Governor Gray Davis took office; she moved to Arizona and the DEQ director's job in March 1999.

An environmental group surveyed employees of the California Fish and Game Department just before she left. More than half of those surveyed reported some permit applicants received favorable treatment if they sought help from Schafer's office or the governor.

But perhaps more foreboding for DEQ staffers trying to do the right thing with Meadowcraft, 20 percent of their counterparts surveyed in California reported they had "been directed to ignore an environmental law, regulation or violation."

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