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The Western Front

by Kevin Taylor
PNW Inlander, July 2009

Obama says he'll return science to its proper place when making environmental policy.
So far, people tend to believe him

In the half year since she was chosen by President Obama to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson has made two bold, historic moves in the interest of public health.

As the first African-American woman to lead the agency, Jackson is making history in her own right, but in April, the EPA declared that greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, pose a threat to public health and welfare.

This potentially allows the agency to directly regulate smokestack emissions under the Clean Air Act, which would represent the most far-reaching action in EPA history, observers say.

Then two weeks ago, and closer to home, Jackson declared a public health emergency for Libby, Mont., where decades of mining vermiculite -- which contains a particularly nasty type of tremolite asbestos -- has killed and sickened hundreds of residents with cancers and breathing disorders.

Federal officials estimate 500 people have died and more than 2,000 are suffering health effects in the towns of Libby and Troy (with a combined population of 3,900).

The declaration is the first time in EPA history that such a finding has been made under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which we know more commonly as Superfund.

"This is a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long," Jackson said at a press conference on June 17. "For years, Libby and Troy residents have been at higher risk for lung cancer. We determined that we needed to step up our efforts to help."

Strikingly, the EPA declaration of a health emergency comes a month after executives for W.R. Grace, the corporation that ran the mine since 1963, were acquitted in a Missoula federal court of criminal charges that they knowingly endangered the health of miners and residents. Also, the administration decided on June 16 not to prosecute a final W.R. Grace executive -- one day before the health emergency was declared.

Nevertheless, the change is remarkable, perhaps signaling a new era of transparency and consideration of average people in environmental policy. But is Jackson's high profile act on behalf of public health indicative of other Obama appointees?

"We've got a president now who is curious. Curious about how things work," says Rick Eichstaedt, a river attorney for Spokane's Center For Justice. "I think Obama likes to make decisions based on having a lot of information. Bush conceded he didn't read newspapers, didn't read books."

Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon in Portland, says, "I watch this president and several times now he has said science will take its rightful place."

With appointments like Jackson and NOAA Fisheries Director Dr. Jane Lubchenco, "I think they are showing those words mean something. The sea change is huge," Cordan says.

First Impressions

The Inlander asked for impressions of some of Obama's people who oversee issues at play in this region, ranging from endangered salmon to forests to Indian sovereignty and gaming.

Some Obama appointees come with a mixed reception.

Ken Salazar, Obama's Secretary of the Interior, is from a family that has lived in the West since the 1600s, but who has strong ties to coal and mining industries, voted against fuel efficiency standards as a senator and voted to repeal offshore oil drilling protections.

Larry EchoHawk, chosen to run the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was against Indian gaming as attorney general of Idaho (even though he is native American) and had to convince tribes his opposition was professional, that he was representing the interests of Idaho, in order to win support in Indian Country for his nomination to BIA.

Tom Tidwell, Obama's pick to lead the Forest Service is more universally hailed as a professional willing to find common ground among disparate interests.

Even more in that vein of being a professional, the president's choice of Lubchenco to head NOAA Fisheries is seen as a signature move. She is a marine biologist from the Northwest, well versed in salmon issues.

"I think the difference between this administration and the previous one is like night and day," says Rebecca Miles of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Council.

"In general, I think what we are seeing is a much more intelligent approach at choosing people who actually fit the job," says Kevin Lewis, conservation policy director for Idaho Rivers United. "Lubchenco has great credentials. She is a well-respected scientist."

The Inland Northwest is likely to come to the attention of Obama's appointees on a number of issues. The main ones are: what happens next in Libby; how to clean up or address the Coeur d'Alene Basin contamination, including how that impacts the Spokane River; trying to resolve the long-running dispute over how to best protect endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers; managing forests for sustainable timber harvests; and settling lawsuits over mismanagement of Indian trust funds.

Libby, Mont.

Vermiculite has been mined near this northwest Montana town since 1919. The material was long considered inert, and the tragedy is that it's not just miners who are dying. Of the 1,200 Libby residents with lung-related health problems, 70 percent never worked at the mine [8]. Various mine operators, including W.R. Grace, donated vermiculite for community use, most famously for ball parks and the high school running track, as well as insulation and garden amendments. People all over town were exposed just through daily activities.

Jackson's declaration of a health emergency will revitalize funding to complete house cleanups. The EPA announced it will invest $125 million over the next five years to raise tents over contaminated homes while vermiculite is removed from attics, walls and soils.

Also at the June 17 press conference, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced a $6 million grant to Lincoln County (Mont.) and three health care entities to aid people battling asbestos-related health issues.

The combined $131 million is separate from the $250 million pledged by W.R. Grace to help cover the estimated $333 million cost of environmental cleanup and continuing health care.

Coeur d'Alene Basin

Another Superfund site worth a look -- and funding -- from the new EPA administrator is the Coeur d'Alene Basin. The spread of toxic metals from historic mining waste -- lead, cadmium, arsenic and zinc -- affects an area of 1,300 square miles and may cost as much as $1.4 billion to clean.

The strategy of collecting staggering amounts of contaminated soil for storage in repositories is controversial all by itself. Political leg wrestling between the state of Idaho, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and three county governments over what to do about tens of tons of metals in Lake Coeur d'Alene -- one of the region's top tourist attractions -- has presented another challenge.

"I've flown over the lake in spring, and you can see a stream of darker material that is flowing through the lake into the Spokane River," says Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council.

By watching the snaking stream of contaminated mud from the Coeur d'Alene River to the Spokane, it is easy to see the metals deposited in eddies and beaches, Petersen says, "So we are re-contaminating the beaches to some extent every year."

The Coeur d'Alene Basin cleanup "has been hemmed and hawed through a million meetings," since the Superfund site was expanded in 2002, Petersen says. "You've got to keep the waste in the valley. Where are you going to put all that stuff -- there is no great place for it. And the fix is expensive. [But] I see a willingness by the Obama administration to put some money in."

And if Jackson can pay a little attention to the Silver Valley, there is something else she might investigate -- mercury contamination in North Idaho's two biggest lakes, Coeur d'Alene and Pend Oreille.

"We don't know where the mercury is coming from, but we have almost two dozen fish advisories in Idaho for mercury," says Susan Drumheller, North Idaho associate for the Idaho Conservation League.

Jackson may already be familiar with the Spokane River, given that a proposed regional EPA strategy for dealing with phosphorus in the impaired waterway got a quick kibosh from national headquarters last year. The numbers didn't add up, the D.C. office said.

"I was in Washington, D.C., about a month ago and it was quite apparent that the Spokane River is getting a lot of attention at EPA headquarters," says Eichstaedt of the Center For Justice. "It was positive to see senior EPA officials with knowledge of Spokane River issues."

The post of EPA Region 10 Administrator is open, and former Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession is among a handful of applicants being considered by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

"I recently met with Dennis Hession, and he said there is going to be a need for real change for whoever fills the Region 10 position," Eichstaedt says. "Budgets were slashed under Bush for EPA and Interior agencies to an extent that is just staggering. Enforcement is always the first to fall when that happens.

"The 2010 budget has billions in increase over even the 2009 budget. Even in the Spokane River we need good science to support decisions and those kind of budget increases are good for holding polluters accountable," Eichstaedt says.

Salmon and Dams

Perhaps no Obama appointee affecting this region comes as highly regarded as Lubchenco, the NOAA Fisheries boss.

"She is a very well-respected fisheries scientist out of Oregon State University," says Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "The one pledge the administration has made is to bring science back to its rightful place in natural resource decision making. That's been lacking the last eight years."

Mace is not alone in this observation. Miles of the Nez Perce Tribe concurs.

The Bush administration's fourth and final Biological Opinion (BiOp) on strategies for saving endangered salmon species from extinction in the Columbia and Snake river systems is in the Portland courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Redden. In a May 18 letter, the judge scolded the government for continuing to espouse that salmon are "trending toward recovery" without identifying specific actions or scientific data to support the statements.

Lubchenco and the Obama administration have asked Redden for extra time -- until Aug. 14 -- to review the BiOp.

Miles takes this as a good sign that the new administration is interested in applying science instead of the sometimes vague assurances that have exasperated the judge.

Likewise, Terry Flores, director of the farming and industry umbrella group, Northwest River Partners, says, "It is not unusual for a new administration to look at a BiOp from a previous administration. They could pull back the plan if they thought it inadequate, which we think is highly unlikely especially since it was developed collaboratively."

Mace, Miles and Flores have each met, in separate sessions, with Lubchenco and her staff and other federal officials in the last month. This is a good sign, all say, of Lubchenco's willingness to hear all sides of the issue.

For Miles, this is quite a change from the Bush years. The Nez Perce Tribe resisted Bush administration overtures to sign memorandums of agreement with other entities in the salmon debate because the money came with the caveat that the tribe could not advocate for breaching the lower four Snake River dams.

The possibility of dam breaching, supported by the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce, is necessary should other efforts to save salmon -- such as barging smolts downstream or altering water flow from dams -- fall short.

For years, "the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce were portrayed as being unreasonable. I am very excited to hear talk of dam breaching is back on the table. It's a victory to even be able to talk about it," Miles says.

This is a fresh start in other ways, too, she says. "Our elders say the Indian wars are now being fought in court, and I look at all the battles in between the BiOps where we were forced to fight and stretch our resources."

Miles cites the most flagrant example when former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig cut funding for the Fish Passage Center (which counts returning salmon), forcing the tribe and others to fight into the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to restore funding.

Mace, too, says the previous administration resorted to bully tactics. "Fisheries scientists have been silenced over the last eight years."

Cordan, of Save Our Wild Salmon, cites the case of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientist Howard Schaller, who "was well-regarded by every administration except the last one," she says. Schaller's method of documenting salmon mortality cast a survival of the runs in a grimmer light than other scientists.

"This administration has freed him and unmuzzled him," Cordan says.

Indian Country

Perhaps no sector of the federal government better illustrates the difference between the Bush and Obama administrations than Indian affairs.

Bush had trouble keeping any appointee in place for long because his policies were viewed as hostile to tribes. "He had tons of resignations," says Miles of the Nez Perce.

In fact, prior to EchoHawk's recent appointment, the BIA top spot was filled for just one of the previous four years.

Obama, by contrast, was adopted into the Whistling Water Clan of the Crow Nation while campaigning in Montana last year. He has since appointed quite a number of Native Americans to posts in the White House and Interior.

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, points to health care and land ownership as two big issues EchoHawk and the new administration must address.

Under the previous administration, funding for the Indian Health Care Reauthorization Act had been neglected for nearly a decade, resulting in funds passed by continuing resolution -- the upshot being that health care funds have been stagnant or reduced over this period.

"We are really excited because Obama has given his word that he will put more money into Indian Health Care. The tribes are hoping that Larry EchoHawk, because he is a native himself, will understand the pressing need for health care on reservations," Allan says.

Another hot issue for EchoHawk is addressing new limits on how the government holds land in trust for Indian tribes. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court published a narrow ruling that denied the Narragansett, widely acknowledged as an Indian nation for centuries, the right to hold land in trust because it was not among the tribes officially recognized by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

The import of this ruling is huge in Indian Country, where many tribes have had to fight the federal government for official recognition.


As excited as people seem to be about the caliber of the president's appointments, the cautionary tale is to wait and see who Obama's Westerners select as their heads of regional offices.

Will the trend continue towards science and advocating for the public good?

EPA Region 10 is a good example. The last regional administrator had spent a career in the chemical industry. The one before that was openly hostile to the EPA Superfund presence in North Idaho.

The candidates who may be put forth by Murray, including Hession, are an order of magnitude different.

Similarly, people are watching how Lubchenco fills the NOAA Northwest office. The "energy" interests are said to be promoting Eastern Washington University economics professor Tom Karier, while the "fish" interests are said to back Ed Bowles, fish division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

All along the Western Front, people are waiting to see if change is going to come.

Kevin Taylor
The Western Front
PNW Inlander, July 2009

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