The Dumbing-Down of DERM

More evidence that the county's environmental guardian has abandoned his post

Renfrow: "I do not know."

Pizzi: "Based on your staff's initial observations of Ouster, was that a composting facility?"

Renfrow: "Not to my knowledge."

Attorney Michael Pizzi (left) represents Ellen Perez (center) in a lawsuit that includes testimony from DERM director John Renfrow (right), who may or may not need a map to find his own office
Steve Satterwhite
Attorney Michael Pizzi (left) represents Ellen Perez (center) in a lawsuit that includes testimony from DERM director John Renfrow (right), who may or may not need a map to find his own office

[Pizzi handed Renfrow a copy of a 1998 memo the DERM director wrote to the county's planning and zoning director regarding the Ouster site.]

Pizzi: "You told [the director] that this was going to be a resource-recovery facility that would be engaging in composting of organic materials. Correct?"

Renfrow: "That's what this memo indicates."

Pizzi: "Do you have any explanation as to why the Ouster site would have been referred to as a mulching or composting facility in this memo?"

Renfrow: "I don't know."

Pizzi: "Now, a composting facility is required to be conducted in a confined or enclosed structure with masonry walls -- isn't that correct?"

Renfrow: "I can't answer that question. I don't know."

Pizzi: "Are the requirements for a composting facility different than the requirements for a facility storing soil?"

Renfrow: "I don't know if I can answer that question."

Pizzi: "What is the level of arsenic that would be acceptable in a soil-like storage facility?"

Renfrow: "I do not know."

Pizzi: "This is my last question for today. When would someone have to fill out a lobbyist-registration form prior to meeting with you on behalf of their client?"

Renfrow: "I don't know."

Ellen Perez's neighbor John Wade, who was present at the deposition, says he was taken aback by Renfrow's professed ignorance. "I was absolutely amazed how he indicated he really didn't know what was going on at the site," Wade relates. "The man has known a great deal about [the Ouster site] since day one. He couldn't even remember what his first jobs were at DERM. Amazing!"

The Sierra Club's Barbara Lange notes that DERM under Renfrow's watch has done at least an adequate job of protecting the environment. But that changed, she contends, when Shiver became county manager in 2001. By way of example, she points out that in the past, DERM officials felt at ease informally chatting with her. "But now," she says, "employees are terrified to talk to me about anything."

Another prominent environmental activist, who asked not to be named, believes Renfrow may not have the resolve to do battle with Shiver. For one thing, two years ago Renfrow lost his wife to cancer. "John's had some personal problems and I'm sympathetic with the situation he finds himself in," the environmentalist says. "But John is a political realist first and foremost. And right now the political environment is completely hostile. I think he carefully navigates hot political issues while trying to do the best he can for his department."

An inspector currently working at DERM, who also requested anonymity, affirms that gloomy portrait of an agency under siege. "Steve [Shiver] has his fingers in everything," the county employee complains. "He's let people know that if you crack down on any of his friends you'll lose your job."

"Shiver let people know that if you crack down on his friends you'll lose your job."

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