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Slaying the Arkansas dragon.

Slaying The Arkansas Dragon

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.

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, 50 miles southwest of Phoenix, Ariz., 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 Arizona.

The more power its backers seemed to wield over timid state regulators, the more openly the hazardous waste incineration plant was hated by the public.

But the more Environmental Systems Co. of Little Rock was hated by those in Arizona who had no power over its latest project, the more perfect a foe it became for a man swinging his sword in search of a dragon.

Newly elected Arizona Gov. 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 a March 6 runoff election, Symington posed proudly in the governor's formal conference room to announce the Arkansas 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 Little Rock.

Ensco officials say the company spent about $60 million on the project. In the end, the Ensco settled for a $44-million settlement from the state of Arizona. The company also sold about $17 million worth of equipment.

Ensco had been selected in 1983 to build and operate a state-owned landfill and hazardous waste facility. The project was to have been completed by 1987.

The Ensco settlement did for Symington what the Persian Gulf War did for his fellow Republican, George Bush.

And the governor's coup, at $44 million, cost a whole lot less than Bush's war.

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 Rep. Bill Mundell of Chandler, a Republican who has sponsored hazardous waste reforms for the past three years.

Environmentalists in Arizona, Arkansas and elsewhere 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.

A Hated Monster

Getting Ensco out of Arizona wasn't difficult. It was the monster everyone loved to hate.

But "difficult" defines the complex and politically charged matter of establishing a hazardous waste policy that will make Ensco, or its successor, unnecessary.

What Symington has offered in Arizona 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 10 years ago.

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 Arizona 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 state's major media, broke out singing "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" upon learning of the project's demise.

Attention was so closely focused on the activists pouring champagne over one another that almost no one noticed how the supposedly vanquished Ensco proponents reacted to Symington's announcement.

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 Phoenix 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 former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, met Gutierrez in November and quit her state job 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.

Politically Doomed

One lesson to be drawn from this anecdote, aside from what it suggests about the generosity of the settlement, is that Ensco knew it was doomed no matter who ended up in the Arizona governor's office.

By the time of the runoff, both candidates had pledged to get rid of Ensco. This did not represent particular courage. Public opinion polls showed opposition to the plant had overtaken support by a 4-1 margin.

Nor had the project's Arkansas promoters won many friends within the Arizona business community.

Scientists thinking in parts per billion might quibble about how much actual danger Ensco's toxic graveyard could pose, but to almost everyone else, the risk seemed too obvious to debate.

When formal hearings were held last August, 10 years after the Arizona Legislature voted to establish a state hazardous waste dump, more than 3,500 people protested at the Civic Center in downtown Phoenix.

The debate over what to do now lacks such political clarity, despite the bipartisan backslapping that accompanied last month's passage by the Arizona Legislature of a hazardous waste bill.

The fact is, Arizona's new legislation contains many of the same weaknesses that so undermined the landmark state Environmental Quality Act of 1986.

The EQA, like the new hazardous waste law, looked good on the surface but was loaded with exemptions and gray areas that proved, in time, to be crippling.

The shortcomings of the EQA, an ambitious effort at a comprehensive system to protect water quality, all derived from efforts to strike compromises between business and public interest groups, the same combatants battling over hazardous waste reforms.

Similar battles were fought this year in the Arkansas Legislature.

The tough, relentless skirmishing between these traditional adversaries does not lend itself to civil resolution by an avuncular authority figure, even one with a pocketbook as big as the Arizona governor's.

There are no easy, symbolic victories to be had on this battlefield in Arizona or any other state, says Jack Pfister, who helped then-Governor Bruce Babbitt referee the combatants during negotiations on the 1986 Environmental Quality Act.

"Every step is going to be difficult," Pfister says. "A leader needs patience, flexibility and resolve to get the problem solved. Babbitt stayed directly involved the whole way through."

Powerful Special Interests

Pfister says a leadership vacuum in state government, following the departure of Babbitt and several key lawmakers, amplified weaknesses in the EQA as special interests chipped away at it without much restraint from above.

Pfister says it is much more difficult for a legislator to mute the influence of a powerful lobbyist than it is for the governor to clamp down.

In fact, despite Arizona lawmakers' efforts, their legislation to create a cogent hazardous waste policy this spring was compromised well before the session's final gavel. Ironically, one of the lobbyists seeking exemptions was Bruce Babbitt, now representing World Resources Corp., whose largely unregulated south Phoenix recycling plant is a particular thorn to environmentalists.

"The problems aren't resolved at all," Priscilla Robinson, a Tucson environmental consultant says of the Arkansas company's exit from Arizona. "There's no resolution on waste incineration, barring imports and a host of monitoring issues."

Legislative leaders maintain that their efforts, despite some flaws, are a success.

"I really believe we're on the cutting edge in pollution prevention as a state," Mundell says. "This bill definitely forts, despite some flaws, are a success.

"I really believe we're on the cutting edge in pollution prevention as a state," Mundell says. "This bill definitely states in the country have this."

Not everyone shares his confidence.

"During the campaign, the governor said he opposed incineration. Now, he says he will study it and see if it's safe," Robinson says, referring to Symington's plan to establish a committee to study Arizona's hazardous waste treatment needs.

Symington also wants to convene a group of "nationally recognized" scientific experts to advise the panel on technical issues.

Critics of Symington's approach contend what is needed now is not another study, but rather a clear decision on which disposal technologies - already the subject of extensive national study - Arizona will accept and which ones carry more risks than the state's residents are willing to accept.

Rita Pearson, Symington's top aide on the environment, denies that the study committee is nothing more than a convenient dodge in the wake of the Ensco "victory."

"The governor is not just going over old ground," Pearson says. "A lot of things have changed since 1983 (when Ensco was awarded the contract). The wastes produced by Arizona industries have changed dramatically."

EPA Pressure

Arizona political insiders, however, say Symington has been under heavy pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator, Reilly, to soften his campaign stance against incineration and waste imports.

Reilly campaigned for Symington during the runoff, and the two confer frequently by phone.

"Fife talks to Reilly, and probably listens to him more on environmental issues than to anyone else," Mundell says.

Reilly strenuously opposes bans on waste imports by individual states, saying they hamper the development of regional waste disposal compacts. Indeed, his advocacy for regional waste disposal facilities dates back to his days with the Conservation Foundation, whose board of directors includes the chairman of Waste Management Inc., the world's biggest waste-handling conglomerate.

Once elected, Symington started telling legislators he had "problems" with their proposals to ban waste imports to the state facility, ostensibly because the language was too sweeping.

Symington was backed up by new Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods.

Democratic primary candidate Richard Segal, a widely respected business lawyer, says such objections are baloney.

"Of course the state can write its own rules for its own facility," Segal says. "The only possible conflict with federal law would involve banning imports to privately owned facilities, as has been tried in other states."

Environmentalists contend Arizona's new governor, with Ensco out of the picture, is backpedaling on a key campaign pledge. "Symington said in the campaign he opposed waste imports," says Michael Gregory, a Sierra Club toxics specialist. "But Bill Reilly came here and campaigned for him, so Symington owes him."

Rita Pearson counters that critics must have misunderstood Symington.

"He said he didn't want Arizona to become a dumping ground, he didn't want to create facilities that would become a magnet for other states' wastes," Pearson says. "That's not the same as entering into agreements with specific states that might, for instance, involve us importing certain of their wastes while they might host the regional disposal facility for another type of waste."

Symington aides acknowledge that the EPA wants state borders to remain open.

"It's hard enough to negotiate with the EPA now because we rely on exporting our hazardous wastes," says Doug Cole, Symington's press aide. "It is waving a red flag in front of EPA to talk about banning imports, and there's really no need, as we see it, now that Ensco is gone. It isn't an immediate problem."

Not Involved

Throughout most of this year's Arizona legislative session, the new governor was not involved with the waste import issue. Symington aide Chris Herstam says the governor was absorbed by the Ensco negotiations, not ducking controversy.

Herstam notes that Symington vetoed a bill that would have weakened water quality standards, even though it was supported by two powerful lobbies, farmers and cities.

"He made some powerful people real unhappy, but he did what he thought was right," Herstam says.

While Symington focused on Ensco, special interests were swarming over the hazardous waste legislation looking for loopholes.

"The lobbyists are out in full force, [and] it's as bad as it ever was," state Sen. Karan English said during the session.

English, a Flagstaff Democrat, heads Arizona's Senate Environment Committee.

English suffered a humiliating setback at the hands of mining industry lobbyist Jim Bush, who was bent on ensuring the law would not impede his clients' thriving business of "recycling" hightech wastes.

California firms annually send tons of chemical waste sludge to Arizona's smelters, which add the wastes to smelter feed. The mines claim they are recycling the wastes to recover precious metals. Environmentalists call the practice "sham recycling" and contend it is unregulated hazardous waste disposal.

Bush persuaded two of English's fellow Democrats, Bill Hardt and Gus Arzberger, to champion sweeping exemptions for the mines. Not only would smelters continue to avoid licensing requirements by calling themselves recyclers, mining operations would not have to develop or follow pollution prevention plans.

"It was painful to see it happen," English says.

As if to quiet her own doubts, she adds, "One of the reasons I'm not as concerned about the mining exemption is because the feds are starting to put an umbrella over mine wastes and recycling activities."

Shortly after English made the statement, however, the EPA announced it would regulate only two out of more than a dozen mining wastes it has been studying. On May 21, a national coalition of environmental groups sued the EPA over "lax" regulations issued in April for smelters and other industrial furnaces that burn hazardous wastes.

Republican Mundell, English's counterpart in the Arizona House, says he has been trying to obtain hazardous waste reforms for three years, only to see them shot down. Like Arkansas, Arizona has a hyperactive business lobby.

The mining exemptions sailed through without so much as a warning shot from the Symington camp. Pearson claims this is because Symington has not had a chance to study the situation.

"One argument the mines make is that if they had to follow these rules, it would cut their mining operations," she says. "Once the governor gets the facts, I'm sure he'll make a decision."

Lack of Leadership

Environmentalists contend the blatant exemption of Arizona's largest waste producers (by volume) represents a leadership failure.

"What was needed in the closing moments of the argument was for the governor to come in and exert clear direction to protect public health and the environment by insisting that major industries not get blanket exemptions," the Sierra Club's Michael Gregory says.

In the early 1980s, Bruce Babbitt faced a dilemma similar to that confronting Symington.

Public sentiment strongly favored a comprehensive law to prevent pollution of the state's water supply, but business lobbyists continually thwarted waste disposal practices.

In 1985, Babbitt, then nursing presidential ambitions, launched a campaign for comprehensive restrictions to protect groundwater quality. Bolstered by a popular revolt over legislative indolence, Babbitt convened a team of interested parties to negotiate the law. But this time, for the first time, the powerful insiders were joined by public interest representatives.

From then until passage of the 1986 Environmental Quality Act several months later, Babbitt mediated disputes, set the agenda and, when mediation failed, made the decisions. The process may have been motivated by Babbitt's political aspirations, but it gave Arizona the strongest groundwater protection law in the nation.

Babbitt's gumption was all the more impressive because, unlike the Ensco case, the playing field heavily favored the special interests.

Mining and agriculture, Arizona's historic economic mainstays, dominated the business lobby. Their lobbyists ruled the legislative process like virtual autocrats, doling out campaign funds and demanding - not asking - that legislators veto environmental measures in the name of a sound economy.

Groups such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded by lobbyist Jim Bush, dispatched platoons of lawyers whenever a state agency attempted to strengthen environmental protection. It was not uncommon to enter a hearing attended by 40 or 50 people, in which all but one or two of the participants were business lobbyists.

Environmentalists, perpetually outgunned and outspent, were regarded almost as comic relief by lawmakers. Their sole strength lay in the fact that, even in conservative, anti-government Arizona, a growing segment of the public shared their concerns.

About this time, Arizona voters were polled on the somewhat whimsical question of a death penalty for hazardous waste crimes, and the idea was endorsed by a large majority.

In 1985, a coalition of public interest groups launched a draconian voter initiative to protect water quality, circumventing the legislature and state agencies. The initiative, which opponents said would be an administrative nightmare, almost certainly would have passed but for Babbitt's striking success with the EQA.

Babbitt, however, was a Democrat.

The business community represents the very heart of Republican Fife Symington's constituency.

"Babbitt was successful because he could listen to all sides and come up with an intermediate proposal, and it would be one that wouldn't stretch either side beyond where they were prepared to go," Jack Pfister says. "He brought to the table a familiarity with the subject that exceeded even that of some of the other people there. He was flexible, he knew when to be firm, and he was committed to getting a resolution."

Symington aides say it is too much to expect a new governor to wield that kind of authority over something as complex as toxic wastes.

But mistakes in the other direction are no less costly.

For Symington, the question is not only if he wants to maintain that balance, but also whether he has the skill and commitment to do so.

The Ensco dragon was easy to slay. The project's death was politically popular.

After all, the invaders were from Arkansas.

PHOTO : ARKANSAS MODEL: Environmental Systems Co. of Little Rock owns and operates this hazardous waste facility at El Dorado. The company had planned to operate a state-owned facility in Arizona but reached a settlement to pull our after it became a political football.
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Title Annotation:state of Arizona's $44-million settlement with Environmental Systems Co. to abandon its half-built waste facility
Author:Stanton, Kathleen
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 29, 1991
Previous Article:It may not be over yet.
Next Article:Economic fortunetelling.

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