Leavitt for EPA Head? Much Worse Than You Thought

As a rule, secretaries of the Interior Department come from the West and directors of the Environmental Protection Agency hail from the East. Ronald Reagan breached this cardinal political tenet by picking Anne Gorsuch Burford of Colorado to head his EPA department, with disastrous results. Burford resigned in disgrace and narrowly escaped indictment. Her top aide, the ridiculous Rita Levelle, wasn’t so fortunate. She ended up doing time in federal prison for lying to congress, a fall girl for Burford.

Christie Todd Whitman, the ditzy director of the EPA under George W. Bush, announced her resignation in July to return to New Jersey and mull a run for the senate-a project almost certainly doomed following recent disclosures by the EPA’s Inspector General that Whitman lied to the people of the New York City metro area after 9/11, pronouncing the post-blast air safe to breathe, when, all the while, she knew it was contaminated with a deadly stew of toxins.

Many DC insiders presumed that Bush might try to dampen the bellows about his scandalously pro-polluter policies by tapping a slick fixer for the post, such as William K. Reilly, who commanded the agency during his father’s administration. But no. Bush the younger, following the flagitious advice of his political bantam Karl Rove, chose to follow in Reagan’s inauspicious footsteps. He drafted Mike Leavitt, the rightwing governor of Utah.

Leavitt looked as surprised at the news of his nomination, which must be approved by the senate, as Dan Quayle did when got the call from George Bush the first. After all, Governor Leavitt has never shown much interest in the EPA, outside of battling to keep its regulatory arms from stifling the smokestacks of Utah’s polluters. As the leader of a renegade group of western governors, Leavitt sent a memo to the Bush transition team shortly after the 2000 election urging the new administration to transfer most of the EPA’s regulatory responsibilities to the states. He even pushed for Bush to back a constitutional amendment giving states control over federal lands and environmental issues. Leavitt christened his plan Enlibra, which sounds like some bizarre apparition from the Book of Mormon but boils down to the environmental version of welfare reform.

Of course, Enlibra has already been given a test-drive in Utah with unnerving results. In Leavitt’s 12 years as governor, Utah has outpaced nearly every other state in a dubious category: generation of toxic waste. The Beehive State, the 37th most populous in the nation, now ranks second in industrial pollution, trailing only Nevada.

But Utah may soon surpass its neighbor to the West, especially with Leavitt at the helm of EPA. Already, Utah boasts the two top polluters in the country Kennecott Copper Company, located in Magna south of Salt Lake City, and the third most toxic plant, USMagnesium Corp., whose deadly smelter towers over the shores of the Great Salt Lake in Rowley, Utah.

It’s stiff competition, but USMagnesium may well rank as the sleaziest corporation in America. As the sole producer of magnesium in the US, the company is a true monopoly and acts like one. For years, it’s smelter was the most toxic smokestack in the world, belching chlorine-laden gas into the skies of the Salt Lake Valley.

USMagnesium is owned by Wall Street raider Ira Rennert, who refers to himself as “a financial Houdini”-an appellation he earned by bilking bondholders out of millions and skating away freely. From his Renco holding company, Rennert commands a slate of corporations, including lead and coal mines, a steel factory and AM General, which makes both the military and SUV versions of the Humvee. In New York, he is known mainly for building the biggest and gaudiest mansion in the Hamptons, a 66,000 square foot palace with 29 bedrooms, 30 bathrooms and two bowling alleys.

When EPA finally slapped USMagnesium, then called MagCorp, with a lawsuit in 2000, Rennert crashed the company, filing for bankruptcy instead of paying the fines. Leavitt, a dutiful recipient of Rennert’s campaign contributions, lambasted the EPA for harassing one of Utah’s finest corporate citizens. The governor has repeatedly cited the bullying of MagCorp as an example of EPA regulatory overkill.

But Rennert the raider didn’t seem too ruffled by it all. He swiftly reorganized the company, still under his control, as USMagnesium and seems to have evaded liability for his environmental crimes, much to the dismay of EPA regulators. “We thought that bankruptcy might be a trick they would pull,” said EPA attorney Martin Hestmark.

But Rennert’s revamped company faces new charges. The BLM, far from the greenest agency in the government, claims that USMagnesium has been systematically stealing minerals from federal lands in the Salt Lake Basin. Meanwhile, the EPA is attacking USMagnesium on another front, accusing the company of sluicing toxic waste into unlined ditches feeding into a 400-acre of pond of chemical sludge. EPA wants the waste treated before it is disposed. Rennert contends that his company is exempted from such trifles by 150-year old federal mining laws. Leavitt apparently agrees.

As governor, Leavitt’s pet project was the Legacy Highway, a $1.9 billion four-lane monstrosity designed to feed the every-expanding sprawl of Salt Lake City. There was a problem from the start: the Great Salt Lake and hundreds of wetlands that form one of the great shorebird nesting grounds in North America. Leavitt ignored pleas from environmentalists to avoid the wetlands and began paving them over in 1997, saying that he was fulfilling the Mormon vision of Brigham Young to transform the desert into an economic engine. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups and the mayor of Salt Lake City followed and last fall the conservative 10th Circuit Court of Appeals slapped an injunction on Leavitt’s highway saying it violated federal clean water and wetland rules-regulations that the governor will be responsible for enforcing as head of the EPA.

In 1991, an outbreak of whirling disease struck Utah’s trout population, killing thousands of fish, including rare native cutthroat trout. Whirling disease is the piscine equivalent of AIDS and now threatens native fish throughout the Rocky Mountain region, from New Mexico to Montana. The source of the contamination in Utah was traced back to the Rock Creek Ranch, a commercial trout hatchery owned by the Leavitt family. At the time, Mike Leavitt was director of the hatchery that spread the deadly infection. (He later resigned and turned the daily operations of the trout factory over to his brother.) The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources launched an investigation and found that the Leavitt business was operating without the mandated inspections and far beyond the scope of their license.

“It must be pointed out that the inappropriate transfer of live fish from [Road Creek Ranch] facilities not having the necessary fish health approval resulted in the transfer of Myxobolus cerebralis to other facilities,” the finding noted. “The other private growers in the area were checked and found to be negative.”

The Attorney General’s Office filed charges against the Leavitt fish enterprise, citing more than 30 violations of state regulations. Leavitt resigned his position as hatchery director and his company pleaded “No Contest” to the charges.

Allegations later surfaced in the media that someone at the Leavitt operation had intentionally dumped whirling disease infected trout into six Utah rivers. The motive? To wipe out native populations of cutthroat and rainbow trout and have the state replace them by purchasing hatchery fish. By this time, Leavitt was governor and the head of the DWR felt uncomfortable in pursuing the matter. “I have not been able to take some of the actions I would have liked out of fear that I would do the Governor more harm than good,” wrote Ted Stewart, director of Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, in 1996.

Stewart had ample reasons to be cautious. In 1994, Leavitt purged 10 biologists in Utah’s Department of Wildlife Resources, who had been holding up mining and logging plans because of concerns over rare wildlife. “I blame the political hacks from the governor on down,” biologist Craig Miya told High Country News a few days after being fired. “They’ve gutted the agency for doing our jobs too damn well.”

According to Todd Wilkinson’s excellent book, Science Under Siege, the replacement biologists were warned “to refrain from identifying endangered species.”

Even some corporations view Leavitt with contempt. Earlier this year, the Outdoor Recreation Industry Association threatened to move its annual trade show out of Utah in protest of Leavitt’s secret deal with Interior Secretary Gale Norton which prevented the BLM from designating any new wilderness study areas on federal land in Utah. The move opens up 6 million acres of roadless land to ORVs, mining and oil leasing.

In April, Norton and Leavitt sealed another backroom deal, which Utah greens dubbed the “pave the parks” scam. Under this novel agreement, old hiking trails and wagon roads through national parks, wildlife refuges and forests will through the magic of bureaucratic redesignation now be considered “constructed highways” and open to paving and attendant development. Leavitt loves his roads.

Although the governor frequently attacks the DC elites, he does enjoy backing from a cadre of longtime Beltway insiders, headlined by Washington Post columnist David Broder. The increasingly addled Broder, who lately put George W. Bush on an intellectual par with FDR, anointed Leavitt as an energetic middle-grounder, although he admitted that he knew next to nothing about his environmental record in Utah. Nothing excites Broder, who describes himself “an unabashed Leavitt fan”, like the middle-ground, even when the middle ground is chocked with dioxins and PCBs. Broder declined to disclose the level of cancer deaths he would find acceptable as a judicious act of political statesmanship.


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3