When Governor Fife Symington killed an enormous toxic-waste project in 1991 near Mobile, he was hailed for ending an environmental nightmare. It was the new governor's first public relations coup.

But the political climate that allowed Symington to put a halt to the toxic-waste facility wasn't created by the governor, his supporters at the capitol or officials at the state's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which oversaw the development.

In fact, for seven years, the state's political apparatus had done all it could to propel the efforts of Environmental Services Co., or ENSCO, the private company contracted to operate the toxic-waste facility. To activists opposed to the facility, ENSCO's cushy relationship with state officials added fuel to the environmental fire. At a now-infamous public hearing at Mobile Elementary School on May 7, 1990, roughly 400 demonstrators against ENSCO were confronted by a small army from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. The sheriff's men used stun guns to arrest 18 people. News clips showing the deputies stunning and manhandling protesters served to galvanize the general public against the toxic-waste plant.

By the time the next public hearing was held in Phoenix later that summer, the ranks of a few hundred angry citizens had swelled to more than 3,000.

It was one of the biggest turnarounds of public awareness in recent memory. Suddenly, the ENSCO deal was in trouble. The plunge in political support was so dramatic that Symington was able to kill the toxic incinerators exactly a year later, and he was able to extract $45.5 million from a notoriously tightfisted legislature to pay off ENSCO.

With the ENSCO settlement, the new governor gleamed in the light of his first major positive publicity. Residents near Mobile were spared the noxious side effects of a national toxic-waste disposal site in Arizona.

But nearly three years later, the demonstrators who made it possible--the ones stun-gunned by county deputies and prosecuted by county attorneys--are still mired in a court battle against the government. The protesters still wonder just what hit them the night of May 7, 1990.

@body:What's remarkable about the downfall of ENSCO is how abruptly state policy reversed itself after years of quiet steps toward a regional toxic-waste site. Prior to the violent arrests, Arizona officials were hell-bent on bringing toxic incinerators to the Mobile community. In fact, the Mobile hearing was the last public meeting scheduled before ENSCO could be given its final operating permits.

But critics charge that in its zeal to grease this last obstacle to ENSCO's licensing, DEQ conspired to limit citizen input and steamroll all public opposition.

More ominously, DEQ officials are alleged to have met with law enforcement officials ahead of time to determine who should be arrested at the public hearing if there was a demonstration.

DEQ representatives strongly deny that they engaged in such constitutionally troubling behavior. Sheriff's deputies, however, have admitted in sworn interrogatories that DEQ officials--prior to the public hearing--agreed to point out which protesters were to be arrested at the meeting. In an effort to further substantiate these charges, lawyers for those arrested demanded tape recordings of critical interviews with DEQ officials conducted immediately after the hearing.

Incredibly, the state admits that it destroyed the tapes of those interviews--six months after they were requested by an attorney for Phyllis Richline, a woman who claims police injured her when they forcibly removed her from the hearing. "They knew they were the subject of an investigation and they destroyed them anyway," says Matt Cunningham, Richline's attorney. "That, to me, is amazing." All that remain of the interviews are the summaries contained in a Department of Public Safety report, prepared at the request of then-governor Rose Mofford. The report exonerated DEQ officials of any wrongdoing, concluding that the protesters were responsible for the meeting getting out of hand. "Environmental activists and others initially disrupted the hearing by yelling, screaming, pounding and clapping when DEQ officials attempted to begin the hearing," the DPS report said. But that finding didn't square with the ruling of a justice of the peace in Gila Bend, who quickly cleared seven protesters charged with disrupting the meeting. Charges weren't even filed against the other 11 protesters arrested at the hearing. Skeptics claim the DPS report--based on interviews with seven DEQ officials--is so deficient that there is little reason to believe many of its other findings.

"This so-called investigation is a whitewash and an insult to the public's intelligence," Bradley Angel, of the environmental group Greenpeace International, said at the time. "How can you have a legitimate investigation if you don't bother to interview the public, the hundreds of witnesses who saw it all?"
DPS officials are sheepish today, refusing even to call their report an investigation anymore--it was merely a review, says Sergeant Rick Knight. "I wouldn't say it was in-depth," he adds. Indeed, court records, depositions, videotapes and interviews with several of the parties involved cast a different light on what happened. DEQ, through its planning and setup for the Mobile hearing, attempted to minimize public input into the project. The massive police presence at the hearing also served to limit protest. Even though DEQ knew a large crowd was expected, it refused to take the obvious steps that would have accommodated more people. While state law required the hearing be held at the Mobile school, DEQ didn't make plans to use a back-up site in case the schoolroom turned out to be grossly inadequate, as it was. DEQ didn't even utilize all the space available inside the room. The state agency disregarded a storage area that DEQ officials later admitted was used at past public hearings on ENSCO. "There would have been no problem had they gone and cleared it out," the Mobile school principal, Jerry Begalman, tells New Times.

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Dave Newbart