Mining companies and other businesses will be allowed to keep environmental studies secret, even if they detail possible pollution problems, under industry-backed legislation that gained final House approval Monday.
Under the measure headed to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, environmental audits generally could not be used as evidence in civil cases.
But the legislation does not provide outright immunity. Businesses still would be subject to sanctions for environmental violations spotted by regulators. And the new legal privilege would not apply in criminal cases.
Supporters say the plan encourages recent purchasers of property and others to investigate potential pollution problems.
Critics say it would allow secrecy without providing any likely benefit to the environment.
More than a dozen other states have similar laws. Most of those laws were enacted in the 1990s when then-Gov. Fife Symington vetoed an Arizona version.
The House approved the Republican-sponsored bill Monday on a 39-15 vote along party lines. It was approved previously by the Senate on a nearly party line vote.
Democratic Rep. Ed Ableser of Tempe opposed the bill, saying during the House vote that it “provides a shield of secrecy for the bad actors” and that it essentially will allow companies to get away with “pollution and corrupt behavior.”
No representatives rose to defend the legislation during Monday’s vote, and the legislation’s chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Heather Carter of Cave Creek, did not immediately return a call for comment.
However, lawmakers who support the plan said during a Senate debate last month that the new protection would encourage businesses to step forward and clean up pollution.
“It’s a step forward in helping business succeed,” said Sen. Judy Burges, R-Sun City West.
Supporters of the Arizona bill included the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Arizona Rock Products Association, Arizona Public Service Co., the Arizona Mining Association and the Home Builders Association of Central Arizona.
The Sierra Club opposed the bill, and lobbyist Sandy Bahr said it would make it harder for the public to monitor the performance of regulators who have to keep confidential information in environmental audits.
That’s a concern, Bahr said, “because a lot of the time it’s really the agencies that we have to push to follow their own laws.”
Bahr added later: “The bottom line on some of this is you might not know for years what’s in this audit.”
The Arizona bill originally was approved in the House but died in the Senate when it was denied a hearing by a committee chairman who said it should be retooled to make it more clear.
However, the legislation was revived when its provisions were used to replace an unrelated bill being heard by another Senate committee.