ENSCO was the stuff of nightmares, a fuming, snorting, glowering demon that would have gorged on toxic waste, expelling its lethal scat into the air we all breathe. When it inhaled, wastes from all over the West would be sucked into Arizona. It would exhale dioxins, heavy metals and countless, nameless other toxins.

Though the site, fifty miles southwest of Phoenix, never became more than some scalped desert and several hundred tons of metal parts bundled on flatbed trucks, the image of three incinerators and acres of burial pits evoked a menace that, once recognized, captivated imaginations the length and breadth of the state.

The more power its backers seemed to wield over timid state regulators, the more openly it was hated by the public. But the more ENSCO was hated by those who had no power over it, the more perfect a foe it became for a man swinging his sword in search of a dragon.

Newly elected Governor Fife Symington, on the prowl for a quick political victory to launch his four-year term, rose eagerly to the challenge. Within two months of beating Democratic challenger Terry Goddard in the March 6 run-off election, Symington posed proudly in the governor's formal conference room to announce the demon was dead. Surrounded by exultant aides, Symington outlined how he had convinced ENSCO to abandon its half-built waste facility, forgo a lawsuit over lost profits and go quietly home to Arkansas.

The ENSCO settlement did for Symington what the Persian Gulf War did for George Bush. And the governor's coup, at $44 million, cost a whole lot less than Mr. Bush's war, too. Even many Democrats lauded Symington's accomplishment, saying his skill and experience as a businessman--the leadership theme of his campaign--had proved true.

Mundane reality, however, trails after his public-relations coup like an unwanted footnote. "ENSCO is the symptom, not the cause, of our problem," says Arizona State Representative Bill Mundell of Chandler, a Republican who has sponsored hazardous-waste reforms for the past three years. Environmentalists have made this point for years, saying the only way to avoid future toxic-dump disasters is to reduce the amount of waste that needs disposal. Now it is being said by Symington's fellow Republicans, as well.

The problem itself, if not the solution, is all too evident--in places as disparate as comfortable Scottsdale, where thousands of people have been exposed to industrial chemicals in their drinking water, and the industrial west side, where the still-unknown reason for a cancer epidemic among Maryvale children twists like a knife in the gut.

Getting rid of ENSCO wasn't difficult; it was the monster everyone loved to hate. "Difficult" defines the complex and politically charged matter of establishing a hazardous-waste policy that will make ENSCO--or its successor--unnecessary. Now that, as the bloodletting between business and environmental interests over Mundell's most recent legislation demonstrates, is a task requiring leadership.

What Symington has offered is a committee, complete with a committee to assist the committee, to study the situation. ENSCO itself was the product of such leadership by committee ten years ago, and as recently as the Rose Mofford administration, yet another study committee reached inconclusive findings.

Symington got himself elected on the claim that he was a businessman, not a professional politician. But he cannot survive in his new career without political skills. With ENSCO gone, he now stands between two intransigent forces, the state's business lobby and the equally implacable--though far less powerful--public-interest groups. No less problematic is the ambiguous presence of federal environmental administrator William Reilly, who campaigned for Symington but whose policies conflict embarrassingly with some of the governor's key campaign promises.

On this battlefield, no victory is without cost. Arizona, after all, is a place where business expects to operate unbothered by government interference, while common folk support the death penalty for polluters.

OPPONENTS OF ENSCO, in a moment of exuberant populism captured by all the Valley's major media, broke out singing "Ding Dong the Witch Is DeadMDRV" upon learning of the project's demise. Attention was so closely focused on the activists pouring champagne oMDRVver one another that almost no one noticed how the supposedly vanquished ENSCO proponents reacted to Symington's announcement.

As it happens, they were doing much the same thing as their adversaries, only they were doing it out of sight of cameras and microphones. In the secluded midtown offices of their chief political strategist, Alfredo Gutierrez, ENSCO officials celebrated the settlement with a champagne reception.

Gutierrez claims rumors of ENSCO's celebration are greatly exaggerated. He says the champagne reception was actually held to honor his May marriage to Nina Laxalt, a former Arizona Department of Environmental Quality aide assigned to help the governor's office on the ENSCO negotiations. Laxalt, the daughter of Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, met Gutierrez in November and quit DEQ two months later to go to work for his consulting firm. "Everyone thinks we were celebrating the ENSCO settlement but actually it was the marriage," Gutierrez says.

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