Cutbacks Cripple Arizona Air Pollution Enforcement
Despite Looming EPA Sanctions, County Signals Corporate Kid Glove Treatment
Phoenix — Even as it faces federal sanctions for noncompliance with air quality standards, Maricopa County is laying off so many inspectors and other staff that it will no longer routinely issue fines for air pollution violations, according to an Air Quality Department (MCAQD) email posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This internal email was forwarded by the MCAQD Director to an unofficial advisory committee with representatives from industry, including the state Chamber of Commerce, contractors and gravel mines, among others.
With nearly 4 million people, Maricopa County is the biggest in Arizona and one of the largest counties in the U.S., including the megalopolis of metro Phoenix, with a bigger population than 23 states. In a May 27, 2011 email, MCAQD Director William (Bill) Wiley told his kitchen cabinet of corporate, government and non-profit advisors:
“Below is an email, I sent to County Air Quality employees yesterday. It has been a challenging time and we have now reduced our staff by over 20 positions this year. With the reductions in previous years we are now down over 100 positions in 2 years.”
The loss of 100 positions would be a nearly 50% reduction in the MCADQ workforce which was listed as 156 employees earlier this year before the latest layoff. In his email to employees, Wiley ordered them to avoid taking enforcement action against polluters except as a last resort:
“Moving forward, we will shift our focus to creating a culture of Compliance Assurance. Compliance Assurance focuses on increasing the percentage of facilities operating in compliance by utilizing a variety of approaches. This may include outreach, business assistance, training, targeted inspections as well as enforcement. Enforcement should be both potent and effective but used as a final option when other efforts have failed.”
“Director Wiley might as well have told Arizona’s biggest polluters that his department has declared a permanent enforcement holiday,” stated Southwest PEER Director Daniel Patterson, noting that industry could save substantial sums if it did not have to follow increasingly strict air quality controls to protect public health. “How do you encourage clean air compliance when there is no penalty for cheating?”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found Maricopa County in violation of Clean Air Act standards. If MCAQD does not reduce pollution emissions it can face escalating sanctions, such as denial of federal transportation funding.
Wiley’s “heads up” was delivered to an unofficial advisory committee comprised of several industry lobbyists and attorneys which meets every month in the MCAQD building but the meetings are not publicly noticed or open to the public. Making outside scrutiny more difficult, agency management even moved the meetings from the 5th floor to the 8th floor in the MCAQD office building so as to hold them in space rented by a private firm. In February, a local group requested an investigation from the Attorney General into alleged state Open Meeting law violations but the Attorney General declined to take action.
“Even if this arrangement is not illegal, this sort of clubby, closed door dealing on matters affecting public health and quality of life is bad practice,” added Patterson. “Industry insiders should not be privy to information about departmental enforcement that is not available to everybody.”