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States of Corruption

In August, two EPA bureaucrats finalized air quality roll backs for power plants, promptly abandoned their government jobs, and immediately found lucrative positions in the power-generating industry. Down the street, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton’s top lieutenant, Steven Griles, was dutifully short-circuiting environmental regulations for oil, gas, and mineral mining enterprises, the same industries his Washington, DC lobby shop represented until 2001.

EPA employees who double-deal away public health no longer raise my ire. Neither am I outraged about Steven Griles’ sleaziness. I already know that Washington, DC is irreversibly corrupt. But mostly I’m not irate or outraged because DC corruption is trivial when compared to the malignancy administered by state environmental agencies. DC corruption might increase the parts-per-million of arsenic in your water glass. But if you lived in tiny Riddle, Oregon, during the last 10 years, the Oregon state government permitted millions of gallons of heavy metals to enter your municipal watershed every month.

The Bush Administration attracts plenty of attention for environmental rollbacks affecting Oregon forests and water quality. But for more than a decade, environmental degradation has metastasized at an alarming rate here in Oregon where Democrats have occupied the governor’s chair for the last 17 years. The change is best illustrated by John Kitzhaber who ended eight years in office in 2002. During his tenure, Kitzhaber found his environmental soul mate — Bush’s nominee for EPA administrator, Governor Mike Leavitt of Utah. Like Leavitt, Kitzhaber preached environmental redemption at the alter-of-the-middle-ground. In the Kitzhaber/Leavitt world, there are no bad polluters, just misunderstood or under-appreciated businesses.

Oregon’s environmental bureaucracies enthusiastically agree. They understand that the Legislature rewards agency budgets for hand wringing, not for enforcing laws. This may help explain why no agency personnel were at the Formosa Silver Butte Mine in October 1993. In fact, no Oregon personnel had visited Formosa since permits to mine lead and zinc and a little copper had been issued more than 1,000 days before. If was left to a solitary deer hunter to discover and report what the State of Oregon did not know and what the Formosa’s owners and operators had not disclosed: millions of tons of illegally stored mine waste had been discharged into Formosa’s watershed. Seventeen miles of the upper reaches of the City of Riddle’s water supply were poisoned; all aquatic life in the salmon rearing stream were dead. Middle Creek was now electric blue; the water exhaled sulfide odors.

Identifying the suspects wasn’t difficult; rounding them up was more problematic. The Formosa Silver Butte Mine — in bureaucratic terms the potentially responsible party — was incorporated in British Columbia. As the name suggests, the principals were citizens of Taiwan. Oregon Departments of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Geology soon generated a flurry of indignant letters to Formosa’s owners. BLM reacted as if the mine were actually located on the island of Formosa.

Formosa’s owners came forward with a seemingly magnanimous offer in 1994. Formosa would take full responsibility and would add $500,000 to the existing $500,000 bond held by the State of Oregon. Anxious to deflect attention from their Formosa fiasco, the State of Oregon jumped at the offer and quickly contracted for removing mining buildings, filling tailings lakes, and plugging mine tunnels. By early 1995, the repairs were complete; by late fall 1995, the repairs had failed. Formosa quickly filed for bankruptcy.

For three more years, pH3 acid waters laden with heavy metal poured into the watershed. Artesian-like acid drainage spouted from mine tunnels plugged in 1996. But by late fall 2000, Formosa was again bustling with engineers and contractors fueled with $500,000 in engineering and construction contracts. Pipelines, limestone channels, and settling vaults were under construction. Acid mine drainage and heavy-metal discharges would be collected and piped to a series of settling ponds at the edge of the creek; acid-neutral and mostly heavy-metal free water would be returned to the creek.

Unbelievably, the Oregon DEQ had neglected to secure an easement to construct the anaerobic treatment ponds. Having spent more than three years and $500,000, DEQ was unable to complete the most essential part of its treatment plan. In the end, acid mine drainage was simply diverted to the nearby scree slope with the hope that something good might happen to heavy metals before reentering into an already poisoned stream. As predicted, contamination in the watershed failed to improve.

In early 2001, I discovered that DEQ was discharging mine wastes to the rock slope without a permit or a permit exemption. When challenged, DEQ managers stonewalled. Exasperated I located the public records hidden by DEQ managers to camouflage their omission. Still, DEQ refused to comply with their own permit requirements. Not until I notified DEQ of my intention to file for writ of mandamus with the Oregon Supreme Court did DEQ move to rectify the violation.

Earlier this year, DEQ authorized another $500,000 for its the engineering firm, Hart Crowser. Shortly beforehand, DEQ’s most recent Formosa project manager quit and immediately became Hart Crowser’s Formosa project manager. DEQ quickly issued additional contract increases to Hart Crowser, including payments to buy records from a former Formosa mine manager working for an environmental firm expected to bid for cleaning up Formosa. Concerned about these conflicts of interest, I made an unannounced site visit to the mine on September 26, 2003. Just as ten years before, I found the collection system plugged; unmitigated acid mine drainage and heavy metals again flowed directly into the watershed. DEQ inspectors had been absent for 100 days.

So why should I worry about DC corruption? Just one block from my office, DEQ, the agency charged with protecting my water, air, and soils, is actively engaged in regulatory malfeasance, obfuscation, and conflicts of interest.

LARRY TUTTLE is executive director of the Center for Environmental Equity in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at nevermined@earthlink.net

 

 

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