Money for Nothing

Fife Symington has long trumpeted himself as a conservative Western governor who also believes in preserving the environment. He has repeatedly claimed he supports efforts to protect the environment, so long as they do not needlessly burden the economy.

Yet the public record provides scant evidence that Symington-style reform protects the environment effectively--or even provides business with the service it needs to function under the law.

There is, in fact, little reason to suspect that the Department of Environmental Quality is any more effective, on the whole, than its beleaguered aquifer protection program.

To be sure, complaints about DEQ's performance in enforcing a broad range of environmental laws preceded the Symington administration. But those complaints have persisted during his tenure.

Environmentalists contend that DEQ is slow to initiate and complete cleanups of polluted water and land, that it fails to adequately penalize even the most egregious polluters. And industry complains too, claiming that the agency takes years to provide permits for air and water protection--permits those industries need to operate.

The response to these complaints has been consistent through the Symington years: DEQ administrators blame poor enforcement on a lack of funds and staff.

In reality, however, DEQ has plenty of money. For a variety of bureaucratic reasons that defy common sense, the money just can't be spent.

According to state records obtained by New Times, the Department of Environmental Quality has repeatedly underspent its budget by huge amounts--even as it complained about lack of funding. For example, in 1994, the agency failed to spend more than $29 million of a $90 million budget. In 1995, the agency did not spent some $32 million of its $112 million budget.

There is no question that the agency could use every dollar the Legislature appropriates. But state personnel rules make large parts of annual DEQ appropriations virtually unspendable.

Much of the unspent money is tied by state personnel rules to entry-level positions. The salaries the Legislature has set for those positions are so low that DEQ is unable to attract people to fill them. For example, a project officer in the mines unit of the aquifer protection section must have at least one advanced degree, but will earn only $31,180. He can make from $40,000 to $60,000 doing the same job for industry.

And the people who accept the low salaries DEQ can offer often remain there only long enough to be hired away by industries interested in their skills--and their inside knowledge. As a result, the department is chronically understaffed. And turnover stays high.

Former DEQ director Ed Fox thought he knew a way to fix the problem. In his mind, it would be a relatively simple matter to change state personnel rules. He figured there must be a way to take existing salaries and combine them--for example, to make two $20,000-a-year positions that could not be filled into one $40,000 position that would attract many qualified applicants.

How silly can an environmental director be?
Fox says he asked the state Senate to let him change the rules so he could combine salaries, but was turned down. And other DEQ officials say the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which holds great sway over state budgeting, told them as late as last year that the Legislature was reviewing all state personnel rules and was in no mood to grant one-time waivers to DEQ.

Complaints about DEQ's failure to enforce environmental laws have been chronic:

* In 1994, the state auditor general blamed DEQ understaffing for a shocking situation: 90percent of the companies that supply the state's drinking water were not in compliance with the admittedly complicated federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which DEQ enforces. In 1995, new workers were hired, and the noncompliance rate, while still troubling, fell to 68 percent.

* Environmentalists have long complained that DEQ does not adequately regulate the 3,000 or so companies producing waste liquids that could pollute Arizona's rivers, lakes and groundwater. But DEQ promised to adequately enforce the state's water protection laws only after David Baron, an attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, filed a lawsuit. DEQ officials say the agency is trying to comply with a consent decree entered in the case. But they also complain they don't have the staff to properly monitor the 3,000 potential polluters.

* Baron had to go to federal court this year to force the Environmental Protection Agency to pressure the state Legislature to write a program for complying with federal clean air standards.

* And Baron needed to sue again to make DEQ write adequate water-quality standards for rivers and streams.

Even though it took lawsuits to force DEQ to do its job, Baron is reluctant to blame Fox, the DEQ director for much of the Symington administration, for the agency's ineffectiveness.

Baron says Fox "spent most of his time doing a credible job of keeping his department from collapsing under the assault of special interests in the business community.

"Unfortunately, he couldn't do much in a proactive way, because he didn't have the necessary political support in the Governor's Office and the Legislature."

As an example, Baron cites Fox's struggle to create a state program for clean air. Baron says Fox "spent months and months" trying to get industries and legislators and environmentalists to arrive at a consensus.

Finally, Fox had a program all the interests said they could live with. But, says Baron, Fox's program was "shot down by industry in the Governor's Regulatory Review Council," which examines proposed changes in state rules.

The lack of conservative support seems almost ungrateful; Fox did steer DEQ toward the style of environmental regulation Republican revolutionaries say they favor.

DEQ reports now are peppered with business-friendly buzz words like "customer service" and "cost-benefit analysis."

Probably the most striking change at DEQ, and one that engenders the suspicion of environmentalists, involves what is called "stakeholder participation."

This year, "stakeholders" in Arizona's environment--industry lobbyists, environmental activists, business people and academics--hammered out standards that DEQ must follow when it cleans up contaminated soil. The stakeholder group measured the costs of cleanup, compared them to health risks, and came out with a cleanup standard. The standard is less strict than environmentalists wanted, but it will be cheaper for business to meet than the previous standard.

Another stakeholder group is expected to tackle groundwater cleanup.
And DEQ wants to extend this stakeholder concept, creating local groups that will determine water-quality policy for their own areas.

It's too early to tell how many of the programs aimed at fostering cooperation between DEQ and the business community will work. For example, a DEQ section that helps industries get through regulatory procedures opened just last year.

But the new buzz words can't give DEQ the staff necessary to enforce basic environmental laws.

And environmentalists wonder whether some reforms--like the stakeholder rule-making process--are not just subtle methods of giving industry, and its sophisticated lobbyists, another way to weaken environmental regulations.

"I get tired of people saying all of this is a public process and that's the safeguard, as though that excuses DEQ from being an advocate for the environment," Baron says. "DEQ is supposed to be protecting the environment, not playing a zero-sum game with industry."--Terry Greene

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Terry Greene