Where Have All the Tree-Huggers Gone?
It took months of delicate closed-door negotiations--spurred by the threat of an initiative, Burton Barr's desire for the governorship and Bruce Babbitt's hankering for the presidency--before Arizona got the 1986 Environmental Quality Act. Finally, industry and agriculture were restricted on what they could dump into the state's water supply, with hefty fines to punish those who didn't mind, far more heed to the pesticides used in the state, and three separate avenues to sue polluters.
But in only the last few weeks, polluters and their army of lobbyists have taken advantage of today's greatly weakened environmental community to mount a wholesale assault on every major point of that law. And they're being aided by the man supposedly hired by Gov. Rose Mofford to enforce it.
The situation has the environmental community--as loose and unorganized as it's ever been--in a frenzy. Leaders wonder why lawmakers who run on environmental platforms seem deaf and dumb about protection laws unless they're constantly reminded the polluters are wrong. They wonder why Mofford and her staff seemed to have wiped the environment off their agenda. Furthermore, they're more than suspicious about a new key player in this game: Randy Woods, director of the protection agency created by the 1986 law, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
It was Woods who authored legislation to limit the power of the Attorney General's Office to independently sue polluters--a cornerstone of the 1986 compromise. Furthermore, although Woods claims he never intended, his bill would have greatly limited the right of citizens to sue polluters if the state refuses to act. Woods argues that since the AG is the law firm for state agencies, it is he, as the client, who should determine when a lawsuit is filed. Industry and agriculture not only oppose the AG's independent power, but even lobbied to let DEQ have its own lawyers, not answerable to the elected attorney general. They clearly feel they would have better luck keeping their clients out of court if all they had to do was lean on the director of the state environmental agency.
Woods' bill also reduces the $25,000-a-day fine for certain groundwater violations to $10,000 a day, though it does increase some other fines. Industry representatives contend the stiff fine is unnecessary, with the lower one sufficient enough to ensure compliance. But the penalty, if somewhat draconian, was one of the points that environmentalists insisted upon for giving up some ground on what restrictions would be imposed on polluters.
The 1986 accord also required that the use of pesticides be monitored and restricted if they met certain criteria. Environmentalists inserted specific language that the state guidelines must be at least as strict as those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Now Woods says that these criteria may just be too strict for Arizona and conditions here. So he proposed yet another bill to allow him to remove pesticides from the watch list.
But even Jack Bale, the agency's manager of environmental programs, admits he hasn't yet found a single pesticide that doesn't belong on the list. He just wants the power to change the list without bothering to ask legislative approval. Anyway, Bale argues, it costs too much to have to monitor wells and soil for all these pesticides. But he concedes that the agency chose to ask to trim the list rather than ask for more money to do the job right.
Both of Woods' bills made it out of the House of Representatives with hardly a peep, having been routinely approved by the newly created House Environment Committee, headed by Chandler Republican Bill Mundell. Mundell now is scurrying around the Senate trying to fix what should have been done in the first place, such as restoring the citizen lawsuit provision. "I didn't realize the bills had problems," Mundell says. "No one ever came to testify against them."
And there lies the major problem: The stalwarts of the 1986 environmental laws--some moved by sincerity, some by political expediency--aren't in the picture anymore.
Bruce Babbitt is gone. The former governor's presidential ambitions gave him new impetus to bang heads together during the closed-door negotiations in 1986 and create a law with something everyone hated yet could live with. As Babbitt left office, so did his staff, who could be counted on to carry water for the environmentalists. Furthermore, his assured veto of anti-environmental bills is also gone, with Mofford yet to be tested.
Also gone is Greg Lunn, the Tucson Republican who carried the environmental ball for so many years in the state Senate. He decided last year he couldn't support a wife and two children on his $15,000-a-year legislative salary. He's now a member of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, which pays more than twice as much.
Good-by, too, to Larry Hawke, another Republican from Tucson. He used his position as chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee to get his way on many environmental issues. But Hawke suffered from burnout from one too many battles with the mines and the farmers over pollutants and pesticides; he's now in law school.
Of course, Burton Barr's not around anymore, either. He became a major aide to the 1986 bill as he attempted to polish his tarnished pro-industry image in time for a gubernatorial run. He forced his polluter allies to remain at the bargaining table until the bill was hammered out. Then he ran head-on into one Evan Mecham in the Republican primary.
Even outside government, some of the best and the brightest are gone.
Nadine Wettstein, lobbying for the United Farm Workers of America, probably knew more about pesticides and their effects than anyone else at the bargaining table. She's still with the union but is now based in Tucson working on immigration issues.
Jim Vieregg, Betsy Rieke, and Priscilla Robinson are still around. But Vieregg, once the top environmental lawyer for the state, now lobbies for polluters. Rieke, who had been assistant director for the state Department of Water Resources, works for Salt River Project and testified this month in favor of limiting the authority of the attorney general to sue polluters.
And Robinson? The former director of Southwest Environmental Service still likes to think of herself as an environmentalist. She worked this session for a bill to tax hazardous wastes coming into Arizona from other states, with the proceeds used to fund response teams to clean up spills. But Robinson had another interest: She was representing ChemWaste, which runs a recycling operation in California. Imposing a stiff tax here would keep more wastes there--wastes that would be treated for a fee by her client.
Arizona Common Cause used to be a force on environmental concerns, too. It was John Anderson, then the director of the organization, who helped put together the citizens initiative that so terrified the polluters that they were willing to come to the bargaining table. Anderson moved to Tucson; his successor Dana Larsen has neither the interest nor expertise to be very effective.
Only David Baron remains. But the Tucson-based attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest has so many other issues that he often finds out about pending legislation long after it has already been approved by a legislative committee, if not later. That leaves the statehouse without clear environmental leaders or lobbyists devoted to the cause. Mundell is trying to position himself in the footsteps of Lunn and Hawke, but he's not yet schooled enough. Mundell can be excused for some of his ignorance. He wasn't even in the legislature when the Environmental Quality Act was approved, much less in charge of a committee, and has no knowledge of the deals that were cut to craft the compromise. But his reliance on the largely decimated environmental community to point up problems shows that he clearly does not understand the implications of the issues brought before him.
And what about this Randy Woods? He certainly came with environmental chops, having previously headed the state agency in Wyoming responsible for environmental interests. But he's new to Arizona and apparently hasn't taken the time to understand all the compromises that went into the 1986 law. He also has shown his approach to environmental compliance is more to negotiate with the industry than confront it.
Senate Democrat David Bartlett isn't enamored with Woods' performance so far. But with Woods an appointee of Democratic Governor Mofford, Bartlett isn't ready to call for his removal. "He's on a learning curve," Bartlett says. Anyway, Bartlett says, some of the problems are not of his origin. It was Mofford who asked state agencies to trim their budgets; Woods complied amazingly by slashing $100,000 from Superfund monies designed to clean up the environment. This is not the kind of thing you'd expect from a Democratic governor or her appointee. Worse yet, the governor's office never caught the Superfund cut until Democratic lawmakers cried foul. "This was a situation where the governor's office overlooked something it shouldn't have overlooked," Bartlett says.
Van Wolf, a lobbyist for a number of industry clients, surprises no one when he says he welcomes Woods' approach. "The question is whether you are trying to accomplish environmental compliance or you are trying to put scalps on the wall," he says. Wolf clearly believes that Woods is headed in the right direction by adopting a policy of negotiating with industry rather than hauling violators into court.
It's a sentiment echoed by Republican Senator John Hays, who heads the Senate's Health, Welfare, Aging and Environment Committee. "I want Randy to prove to people that he's a man of common sense and fair play, and not just a mad-dog enforcer."
There have been some victories for environmentalists. Senate Democrats, aided by some Republicans, put the kibosh--at least for the time being--on an industry-authored bill to allow polluters to hide what they were doing from the Attorney General's Office and the public, even to the point of gagging employees from telling what they know. That such a bill was even introduced shows how much juice the industry thinks it has these days.
And what about the pro-environmental legislation being debated this year?
There was one nearly do-nothing bill that managed to get out of the House, setting up a committee to study how to protect riparian areas. But Senator Hays says he just plum ran out of time to hear bills this session, particularly something with as low a priority as a study commission. Yet the Yarnell rancher supported another study commission, this one to determine if state taxpayers should pay ranchers for damage caused to their property by wildlife.
And Robinson's bill to tax toxic dumpers is still around. But at the moment, it's stuck in a House committee and might never see the light of day.
The scales are definitely tipped toward the polluters again. It was obvious, considering the demolished ranks of the environmentalists, that this would happen. Obvious, apparently, to everyone but an environmental community that naively thought it could go home and leave the foxes to roam the chicken ranch at 1700 West Washington.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.