Polluters' Paradise

The State Legislature Tries To Open The Door To Toxic Dumping At Taxpayer Expense.
By Jim Nintzel

EXECUTION WAS THE topic on everyone's mind at the Legislature last Thursday, February 1. In the morning, that creepy bill from Rep. Bill McGibbon (R-Ghoul Valley) that would execute death row inmates by harvesting their vital organs dropped dead in committee when no one would even second the legislation. Later that afternoon in the Republican caucus, GOP lawmakers discussed a different bill striking the requirement that a physician be present whenever the state puts someone to death. The bill was sponsored at the behest of a group of doctors who feel the requirement is a violation of their "hypocritical oath," as Rep. Joe Hart of Kingman put it.

Rep. Robin Shaw, the hapless dingbat who represents central Phoenix, got a big laugh out of her colleagues when she perked up and asked what would happen if the state "goofed up" and "the inmate needed medical attention."

While these macabre questions held sway in the caucus, the really frightful action was going on elsewhere. In the House Environment Committee, lawmakers heard testimony on HB 2458, a sinister piece of legislation which would essentially dismantle the state's Superfund program.

The bill, primarily sponsored by Environment Committee Chair Rusty Bowers, would excuse polluters from any dumping they might have done before 1986. It also reduces liability (in fact, it flushes it entirely for companies that have declared bankruptcy), prevents state officials from ordering clean-ups under federal law and creates a three-member board appointed by the governor that could overrule any decision by the Department of Environmental Quality to seek damages against a business.

The end result: Taxpayers get stuck with the clean-up tab for polluted sites across the state, while the folks who profited from the dumping skate.

Bowers, who co-wrote the bill with Phoenix attorney Jim Vieregg and those civic-minded Arizona Chamber of Commerce boys, argued the current laws have pitted companies against companies and the state against business. But he doesn't mention another problem with the Superfund: The Legislature has never managed to, well, fund it. It was supposed to receive $5 million a year. Since 1991, the program has gotten a total of only $3 million from tight-fisted lawmakers.

Bowers introduced his bill 48 hours before he planned to hear testimony on it, which didn't give the attorney general's office or the greens much time to research the legislation before they were supposed to appear to oppose it. Critics won a one-week respite to learn more about the Superfund program when the committee agreed to hear more testimony later this week, but it's likely to pass the committee, since five of the bill's 10 sponsors also sit on the environment committee.

That sort of stealth attack is standard operating procedure at the Legislature, where environmental bills are kept under wraps until they're due in committee.

The long-awaited Environmental Audit Bill surfaced earlier this week, on Monday, February 5, just 48 hours before it was scheduled for a hearing. The audit bill, which would provide wide-ranging immunity for polluters who report their violations, was the subject of some of the fiercest fighting during last year's legislative session and was ultimately vetoed by Gov. J. Fife Symington III. Fife has since changed his tune--in this year's state of the state address, he identified passage of an audit bill as a priority.

This year's version provides polluters with immunity from civil and criminal charges. It also shields them with secrecy, because, after all, if people hear Motorola has created a Superfund site (if, indeed, there's such a program by the end of the session), it could really tarnish the company's image, which could be bad for stockholders. And it's really not the public's business, anyway, right?

"It's worse than the bill the governor vetoed," says Pat Cunningham, a lawyer with the Attorney General's Environmental Division.

You can expect the Environmental Audit Bill to pass the Legislature by the end of the session. But you can also bet the greens will be collecting signatures for a referendum the moment Symington signs it into law. This one is headed for the ballot. TW

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