Filler Hazwasted

When It Comes To The Environmental Audit Bill, The Fix Is In.
By Jim Nintzel

THAT DEVILISH environmental audit bill continued its slick glide through the state Legislature last week. We knew this thing was wired, but we never guessed the degree.

Nicknamed the Bhopal Bill, the legislation allows polluters a Get-Out-Of-Trouble-Free card in the form of immunity from civil and criminal penalties if they file a report of their violations with the Department of Environmental Quality. These reports--environmental self-audits--would be kept under lock and key unless it was a serious environmental problem, defined in the bill as "actual bodily harm or damage that results in significant and widespread destruction or loss of a natural resource." We guess that means some sort of nuclear explosion.

That secrecy element shouldn't surprise anyone. The bill written behind closed doors by a coalition of Republican lawmakers, Lobbyists, business types and staffers from Gov. J. Fife Symington III's office. Backers sprung it on opponents only 48 hours before the bill was due before the Senate's Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, February 7.

Still, opponents had hoped for an opportunity to at least testify against the bill, so they dutifully sat through hours of committee meetings. When Sen. Jim Buster, head of the committee and prime sponsor of the legislation, finally got to the enviro audit bill, he heard testimony from just four people--two for, two against--and then called for a vote on the bill. When another senator suggested they hadn't heard all the testimony, Buster snapped they had more important things to do.

A Yuma Republican, Buster is retiring from the Senate this year to take on U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor in the Congressional District 2 race. While his ugly crusade will no doubt help him when it comes time to raise money from industry PACs, we can't believe it's going to sit well with CD2 voters. When it comes time to cast a ballot, we certainly hope all Tucsonans will remember Buster's chickenshit attempts to subvert the democratic process.

Assistant Attorney General Pat Cunningham was one of the lucky four who was actually allowed to voice an opinion on the bill. Cunningham made it clear the AG's office opposed the bill.

Cunningham says the bill leaves the decision of whether to prosecute a polluter in the hands of the director of the Department of Environmental Quality, rather than with trained prosecutors at the AG's office.

But even worse is the expansive secrecy clause, which means the reports would never see the light of day.

"Not only is it not admissible, it's not discoverable," says Cunningham. "Nobody can discover it in civil action--a grand jury can't get it, a landowner nearby can't get it, a city or county can't get it, the Legislature can't get it, nobody can."

In other words, if you owned land next to a polluting company and a whistleblower told you they had poisoned your aquifer, you could not wrestle the environmental report proving your claim away from the state. And if your property--or your health--is damaged, tough luck.

Elsewhere at the Capitol:

• Lawmakers tightened the screws on the University of Arizona, approving an $229 million budget. The school had hoped for $253 million. But don't worry--the administration will certainly find plenty of money for that wonderful new campus out in the Rincon Valley.

• The Senate Finance Committee narrowly approved a bill establishing a flat tax in Arizona. The plan raises taxes for people making less than $100,000 while cutting taxes for the rich--in the interest of "fairness," according to Sen. Larry Chesley (R-Gilbert), sponsor of the bill.

• The Senate Natural Resources Committee heard testimony bill which would make cruelty to animals a class 2 misdemeanor. Combine that with another bill that makes carrying a can of spray paint a felony and you have an interesting scenario: If you spray-paint the neighbor's dog, it's a serious crime. But if you cut its head off, it's not so bad. TW

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