Fife Symington has told Ed Fox, his new environmental chief, that he wants to see "improved performance" in the state Department of Environmental Quality. But whether that means a tougher stance on polluters is unclear.

Neither Fox nor the governor's office has yet laid out the plans for the oft-criticized DEQ, but the new director talks bluntly about the agency's shortcomings.

"There is a pretty wide perception that the department doesn't work, that businesses can't get permits and enforcement is lax," Fox says. "I certainly have an open hand to deal with the problems. I'm reviewing all the programs now, but I haven't made any decisions about replacing people yet."

Fox, an environmental lawyer with Snell & Wilmer who has represented utilities and high-tech companies in dealings with DEQ, took office ten days ago. "I want to be here for a while and see how the reality matches up with my perceptions," Fox explains.

Environmentalists and industry lobbyists also are taking a wait-and-see approach with Fox, but many people on both sides of environmental issues praise his open-mindedness and competence.

Experience is another matter entirely. Running DEQ, which has a staff of more than 500, will be Fox's first experience as an administrator. Symington's appointment of the 38-year-old Ohio native surprised many observers who expected the job to go to John Wise, a highly regarded regulator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco.

Fox's predecessor, Randy Wood, resigned to head Nebraska's natural resources department after a tenure in Arizona marked by criticism from both business and environmental interest groups. In January, Attorney General Grant Woods called DEQ "a toothless tiger" during an address at which Randy Wood was present.

Will Fox sink his teeth into polluters or DEQ bureaucrats--or both?
"The rumor is Symington wanted someone who wouldn't hesitate to chop heads over at DEQ, and he thought Wise, because he's a career public official, might be inclined to protect the bureaucracy," says a capitol insider.

Rita Pearson, Symington's executive aide for environmental matters, says Symington isn't out to slash DEQ. "That was never the direction from the governor," Pearson says. "He wanted someone familiar with DEQ and who would be aggressive in implementing the programs and enforcing the laws."

Fox says his first priority is to review water-quality programs set up under the state Environmental Quality Act (EQA), a frequent target of criticism from both regulated industries and environmentalists. "The program has taken the most heat because of a history of not issuing permits, and I've asked the people in charge to provide an action plan," Fox says, echoing the concern most frequently expressed by businesses that must obtain permits.

The other program likely to come under quick scrutiny is the state's air-quality program, in part because recent changes in the federal clean-air law require the state to beef up its own laws, Pearson says. The DEQ air-quality office, currently headed by former Bruce Babbitt aide Nancy Wrona, took much of the heat directed at the agency for allowing planned expansion of the ENSCO toxic-waste plant. It's now a moot issue because the plant has been scrapped, but some environmentalists have publicly called for Wrona's ouster.

Fox denies he is entering the agency with a hit list. "All of the assistant directors are under review, no one more so than anyone else," he maintains. "The governor did not send me over here with a specific mandate, but he's made it clear a number of times that the environment is a big concern with him."--

Running DEQ, which has a staff of more than 500, will be the new director's first experience as an administrator.


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kathleen Stanton