Report: Underresourced ADEQ Puts Arizona Environment, Public Health at Risk

The Roosevelt Dam marks the start of a series of reservoirs and dams that make up the Salt River system.
Jim Louvau
The Roosevelt Dam marks the start of a series of reservoirs and dams that make up the Salt River system.
Staffing and budget cuts over the last decade have left state environmental protection agencies woefully under-powered, to the detriment of the air we breathe and the water we drink, a new report says. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is among the hardest hit.

The report, published on December 5 by the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental watchdog nonprofit founded by a former Environmental Protection Agency official, examined the abilities of state environmental agencies to implement and monitor federal environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

It compared annual operating budgets (adjusted for inflation, and including EPA grants) and staffing levels at these state agencies, warning that regulatory agencies with too little money and too few staff were at risk of hastily signing off on permits that allow facilities emitting harmful substances to operate.   

“Most pollution is invisible,” Eric Schaeffer, EIP’s founder and director, told Phoenix New Times, pointing to harmful substances like benzene, nitrous oxides, or fine particulate matter. “You’ve got to get the numbers right, and that takes engineers and people with experience,” he said. “It’s work. It takes time.”

In Arizona, the numbers look bleak for accomplishing that crucial work, even as ADEQ argues that it has only become more efficient in its mission “to protect and enhance public health and the environment of Arizona.”

From 2008 to 2018, funding to ADEQ for pollution control programs dropped 29 percent, EIP’s report showed. Over the same time period, staffing fell by 32 percent. EIP researchers took those numbers directly from the executive budget of Arizona, and confirmed them with the state.

In 2008, as the Great Recession got underway, ADEQ had 473 full-time staff. Funding for pollution control — a tally of spending on administration and air quality, waste, and water quality programs — came to just over $81 million, according to the report.

By 2010, funding for those same programs had plummeted to $55.7 million. Staffing levels remained about the same, at 471 full-time employees, but not for long. By 2013, about 150 people had been cut — nearly a third.

click to enlarge Phoenix's notorious haze is visible in a brown layer along the horizon. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Phoenix's notorious haze is visible in a brown layer along the horizon.
Elizabeth Whitman
Those numbers have barely budged since. ADEQ still employs 322 staff. Its spending for pollution-control programs has increased slightly, to $67.4 million, which is still nearly $14 million less than pre-recession levels.

These figures put Arizona in the top 10 of 48 states whose environmental regulation departments lost the highest proportion of employees (number three in the country) and funding (number seven) between 2008 and 2018.

These trends mirror a similar decline at the EPA, the report found — an alarming combination, it suggested.

“States cannot pick up more slack from a diminished EPA if the state agencies are also crippled by cuts to their funding and staff,” it said.

Arizona does not see these cuts as a problem.

ADEQ has long touted its Lean Management “transformation,” implemented under Republican Governor Doug Ducey, as simultaneously improving services to “customers” — entities seeking permits — while reducing staff.

“When working inside of a disciplined management system, more engaged employees can achieve amazing results,” a web page titled “ADEQ’s Lean Transformation” states. The page highlights department achievements, which come with little context, such as a 1 percent increase since 2012 in “population breathing good air.” Compliance rates are up, and permits are being issued faster than ever, according to that page.

Erin Jordan, a spokesperson for ADEQ, pointed to a Lean-inspired online portal, myDEQ, as increasing compliance rates, reducing permit application times by 95 percent, and saving staff more than 100,000 hours.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality says compliance rates are up and it is dispensing regulatory permits faster than ever.

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“For example, ADEQ found that small water systems … do not have the financial or technical resources to resolve issues,” she said in an email. “But, using the Lean principles of problem solving and Voice of Customer (discussions with system owners and operators), ADEQ strengthened the compliance and technical assistance program to better connect the expertise of ADEQ staff and contractors with small water systems.”

In fiscal 2019, ADEQ issued about 5,000 permits, Jordan said. Right now, 145 permit applications are in process, and it is currently monitoring 77 facilities for serious environmental violations.

But the report — and Schaeffer, the EIP director — rebuffed the notion that increased efficiency compensates for budget and staffing cuts. They disagreed with the idea that faster permitting meant better, safer permitting.

“Relying upon a shrinking workforce to review more applications at ever-faster rates forces agencies to rubber stamp permit approvals, without enough time to evaluate the environmental impact of their decisions or whether the right pollution controls are in place,” the report said.

Schaeffer said that EIP didn’t want to intimate in its report that existing bureaucracies are perfectly functional. “I get why there’s interest in making things work better,” he said.

But, he added, workloads for environmental regulators, especially in Arizona, are only increasing. In 2008, Arizona was home to 6.5 million people. Now it has 7.1 million.

That’s more wastewater, more cars, more trucks, “more stress on the environment,” Schaeffer said.

The state, especially in the Valley, is plagued with environmental problems, such as notoriously bad air quality that has struggled to meet stricter federal standards under the Clean Air Act. In the Valley, ADEQ has delegated responsibility for monitoring and enforcing federal air quality standards to Maricopa County.

Arizona, not including tribal lands, has more than 3,600 hazardous waste facilities that have not had an on-site inspection in the last five years, while just over 350 have, according to an EPA database.

To Schaeffer, that gap is huge — too huge.

“Inspections are especially important for hazardous waste,” he said. Otherwise, toxic waste can create complex messes later on, which can threaten Arizona’s vital supplies of groundwater, among other potential problems.

“You just have to be out there,” Schaeffer said, referring to on-site inspections. “You can’t necessarily monitor compliance from a distance, even with better technology.”

Schaeffer said he did not mean that these thousands of facilities required annual inspections — just that too many facilities were going too long without one.

“You’ve got a state with thousands of facilities that haven’t been inspected once in at least five years. That feels like a shortfall to me,” he said.

Being underfunded and short-staffed is, of course, not unique to Arizona. Environmental regulatory agencies are under resourced pretty much anywhere you go, EIP’s report showed.

Out of 48 states (Hawaii and Alaska were not included) 30 states reduced funding for pollution-control programs at their environmental agencies between fiscal years 2008 and 2019. Of those, more than half cut funding by at least 20 percent, with inflation accounted for.

They cut staff, as well. Forty of the 48 states had lower staffing levels in their environmental departments in 2018 than they did in 2008. Overall, in that decade, states cut more than 5,705 full-time staff at environmental regulatory agencies. These cuts happened in both Democrat- and Republican-controlled states.

Only California’s Environmental Protection Agency expanded significantly in that time, adding both financial resources and staff.