Longform

FREON EASY

Scott Bundgaard used to believe that chlorofluorocarbons--most commonly known by the trade name Freon--were depleting the Earth's ozone layer and increasing dangerous ultraviolet radiation. He'd nag his sister for using aerosol hair spray.

Then he was elected to the legislature, where he and his colleagues on the House Environment Committee considered a measure that called for Arizona to ignore federal law and an international treaty and allow the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) after January 1, 1996, when an international ban goes into effect.

Freon advocates offered both pragmatic and ideological justifications for the law. The ban would force Arizonans to pay for new air conditioning and refrigeration equipment, or swelter without it, they claimed. And, perhaps more important, the legislation offered yet another great way for Arizona to tell the feds--and, for that matter, the world--to buzz off.

Then, there was the small matter of science.
The House Environment Committee was told that the scientific theory behind the hole in the ozone is a hoax, manufactured by NASA scientists who want money to conduct research. The ozone crisis was also being advanced by big companies that stand to make billions by selling replacements for the banned CFCs, the committee was told.

Bundgaard, a Republican from Glendale, was on the edge of his seat, his face rapt, as a witness testified that ocean spray--not CFCs--causes ozone depletion.

The expert witness? Bill Rheinfelder, a retired chemist who once worked for Motorola and Goodyear Aerospace. Rheinfelder has never formally studied stratospheric ozone depletion and never published a paper on the topic. In fact, he has never done anything to distinguish himself as qualified to repudiate theories accepted by the overwhelming majority of the international scientific community.

Rheinfelder concedes that the scientific community does not recognize him as an expert on CFCs, but he adds, "It doesn't really involve a lot to recognize the hoax." He spouts the same rhetoric as Lyndon LaRouche followers and the late Dixie Lee Ray, the former chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who had good things to say about asbestos, Alar and acid rain.

But Rheinfelder was good enough for Arizona legislators like Bundgaard, who was instantly converted. "It was fascinating and seemed convincing enough that I didn't have any problem voting for the Freon bill," Bundgaard says.

The measure--House Bill 2236--was approved by the Environment Committee and both houses of the legislature. But not before it provoked a House vote on whether Arizona should secede from the Union.

When Harvard-educated Governor J. Fife Symington III signed the bill, he said fears about CFCs and ozone depletion were the result of "hokey science."

Which begs the question: Do Arizona's legislators and governor know something other political leaders and scientists don't? Or are they simply nuts?

When it comes to CFCs' effects on the ozone layer, there are enough gray areas and qualifiers to encourage detractors and, incredibly, move an entire legislative body.

But if you compare the credentials of the pro-CFC people with those who support a ban, you'll probably come to the swift scientific conclusion that Arizona's political leaders are wacko.

Fife Symington's pronouncement of the ozone-hole theory as "hokey science" is a fairly bold statement for someone who majored in Dutch art history.

It probably doesn't matter. Nearly everyone agrees that Arizona's CFC bill is moot because the federal ban will supersede state law. Don't expect a Freon theme park to pop up in Gilbert.

Symington is clearly more concerned with political science. When he signed the bill, the governor said, "Just because the federal government passes a law doesn't mean we always have to live with it."

There's a states' rights revolution brewing in this country, and Symington longs to be seen as a master brewer. By pushing in Arizona for measures such as private property rights, school vouchers, the Constitutional Defense Fund and CFC production--and pushing against nettlesome laws like the Endangered Species and Clean Air acts--Symington is making friends among federal-government bashers.

Outside Arizona, he's getting noticed. Newsweek recently devoted a page to Symington's states' rights mantra, and Texas state Representative Jim Horn introduced his own CFC bill after reading about Arizona's. Horn staffer Brent Golemon admits that if it passes, the bill wouldn't have much impact. He and his boss are more concerned with the message.

"We weren't the ones who put those laws into effect. That's the federal government. You know, it's an unfunded mandate," Golemon says of the federal Clean Air Act.

Last week, the Texas bill passed out of the House Environment Committee. It's waiting to be assigned for floor debate or tacked onto another bill.

Symington's not the only Arizonan with states' rights on his mind. Even Representative Sue Gerard--the moderate Phoenix Republican who often opposes ultraconservative legislation--voted for the CFC bill. Gerard says, "I can't argue the science. In fact, none of us can argue the science. It's just the stupidity of the way the feds did it."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.