The leading candidate for Arizona's environmental-quality czar is a career federal regulator who is credited with helping clean up the state's two dirtiest copper smelters.

Sources close to Governor Fife Symington's office confirm that the official, John Wise, a 48-year-old Tucson native, leads the short list and could be named as early as this week as director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. Wise acknowledges that he was personally interviewed by Symington for the post.

Wise, whom environmentalists regard as competent but not a risk-taker on enforcement issues, gets high marks from former DEQ officials for his role in helping bring to heel two of the state's worst air-pollution sources, the Douglas and San Manuel copper smelters. The San Manuel smelter is owned by Magma Copper Company; ironically, Wise is the son of a former Magma executive.

"He's smart, nice, knows the DEQ very well, and he's a very good manager," one former state environmental official says admiringly. "The cleanup agreement he helped negotiate with Magma was one of the toughest I've ever seen; the sanctions in case Magma violated it were very harsh."

Wise currently serves as a deputy regional administrator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, a position he has held for ten years. He declined to comment on his possible appointment, saying, "The governor is considering a number of candidates and I don't believe it's my place to comment." "Wise is clearly one of the top two or three candidates," says Rita Pearson, Symington's top aide on environmental matters. Of five names on the short list, Wise has the most experience as an environmental administrator and is well regarded both at EPA and by state regulators with whom he's worked.

Perhaps most important, Wise is held in high esteem by EPA Administrator William Reilly, who is a buddy of Symington's.

"John has been with EPA since the night it was formed, twenty years ago," says longtime friend Lou Jefferson, who has known Wise since both started out at one of EPA's predecessor agencies, the now-defunct Federal Water Pollution Control Agency.

Other finalists for the post include Ed Fox, a Phoenix environmental attorney with Snell & Wilmer, who left the governor "very impressed" after his interview last week, Pearson says. Also being considered are Richard Seplow, director of regulatory affairs for Revlon's Buckeye plant; Jack Root, director of the state Structural Pest Control Board; and a fourth person whom Pearson declined to name, saying he had not been notified yet that his candidacy was being made public.--

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Kathleen Stanton