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THE POLLUTION ALL-STARS

For state Senator Jim Buster, environmental regulation is like a midway game named Whack-a-Mole played at the Yuma County Fair. As soon as industry dares to make a buck, whack! Regulators pound it with environmental laws. Buster, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee, intends to change those laws.

During a hearing before his committee, the burly Republican from Yuma rolls his eyes and raps his knuckles on the dais as he waits for Ed Fox, the mild-mannered Yank who heads the state's Department of Environmental Quality, to shut up. Then Buster can rack up a unanimous win for another business-friendly bill and move on. There are so many environmental rules to eviscerate and so little time to eviscerate them.

Jim Buster is the captain of the Pollution All-Stars, a group of state lawmakers waging a proud and multipronged attack on laws and regulations that were enacted to protect a wide array of life forms in Arizona, including Yumans.

Last year, the 41st Arizona Legislature handed businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts ("Business As Usual," May 18, 1994). The 42nd Legislature seems determined to prove that when people refer to the Green Decade, they're talking dollar-bill green.

Once again, businesses would be the biggest benefactors. But without the legislature's Pollution All-Stars on hand to perpetuate myths and to browbeat people who worry about sustaining resources, business's agenda would be far less ambitious. In years past, it would have been laughed out of the Arizona State Capitol.

Senator Chris Cummiskey, a central Phoenix Democrat, says, "Last year, [business] got the tax breaks, which made them very happy. This year, [business] is going after the regulatory pie, which is basically to do away with anything that will slow their growth or force them to deal with environmental regulation or make sure that they don't contaminate air and water."

There are bills that denounce the federal Endangered Species Act, that impose private-property-rights legislation soundly rejected by Arizona voters four months ago, that raid the Heritage Fund, which was established by voters in 1990 to direct $20 million per year in lottery money to benefit wildlife programs and habitat.

There are bills that amount to political power grabs. One would shift legal representation of the Department of Environmental Quality from the attorney general to the governor; another would allow the governor to remove anyone from any board--including State Parks or Game and Fish--whenever he wants to.

There's even a bill that calls for the state to become a safe haven for production of the coolant Freon, outlawed internationally because of evidence that it depletes the Earth's ozone layer.

The most radical bills would dismantle Title 49, the state's environmental regulatory code. The bills were drafted not by elected officials but by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. Two of the chamber's favorite bills would:

Offer immunity to companies that perform self-audits of their environmental compliance, provided they reveal their indiscretions to DEQ and take steps to correct them. Also, the bill would, in most cases, allow the companies to keep the information secret--out of court, out of newspapers, out of the hands of neighbors and others who need to know about it. Moreover, it imposes a $10,000 penalty on whistle-blowers who might reveal the sacred data. (Senate Bill 1290.)

Eliminate the "citizen suit" provision in the law, which allows a private individual to bring suit against a polluter if DEQ isn't enforcing the law. (House Bill 2196.)

To hear chamber lobbyist Chuck Shipley speak, one might think environmental regulation has brought Arizona industry to its knees. "What happens with Title 49 affects other programs, it affects the economy, it affects jobs, it affects the future of the state," he says.

The Arizona Department of Commerce apparently hasn't gotten the message. In literature it sends to prospects, the department states, "Arizona is so probusiness, companies from other states have been relocating and expanding here in record numbers. . . . As they'll testify, the Arizona business forecast is clear and sunny."

The Arizona economy is considered one of the hottest in the nation, testament that Title 49 has barely been enforced. A 1993 audit by the Arizona auditor general revealed that:

Of 251 drinking-water-enforcement cases in 1992, formal enforcement action was taken just 14 times.

DEQ had not addressed 838 sites known to be contaminated by leaking tanks.

And of 916 hazardous-waste-violation cases between 1988 and 1993, formal enforcement actions were taken in only 55. David Baron, assistant director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest and an expert in environmental law, says DEQ's enforcement is still woeful. DEQ "rarely seeks penalties against polluters. They rarely take polluters to court. They almost never . . . it's almost unheard-of that they would shut anybody down," Baron says.

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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.