Two weeks in the West

  • Acid mine drainage at Fisher Creek, Montana


Just call it As Interior Turns, the scintillating soap opera set at the U.S. Department of Interior.

The newest star in the revolving cast is James Caswell, who’s been named by President Bush to head up the Bureau of Land Management. Kathleen Clarke stepped down from the post in February.

Caswell, a veteran forester, currently leads Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation. Like his future boss, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Caswell is known as a compromiser; he forged a widely accepted deal for managing his state’s wolves. He also likes to get local input on how federal land is managed. In 2001, while supervisor of Montana and Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest, he sharply criticized Clinton’s Roadless Plan, saying it would lead to revolt among the commoners. He’s expressed support for energy independence, which in the West tends to mean drilling public lands.

His confirmation is expected to be smooth — a good thing, given there’s only a year and a half left in this administration. Caswell has no obvious connections to extractive industries, and he’s scandal-free.

The same can’t be said for the rest of Interior, which has taken on a Teapot Dome-like stench in recent years. Take the most recent episode of As Interior Turns, in which Italia Federici, once an aide to former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, pleaded guilty on June 8 to tax evasion and lying to Congress about her dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Federici is president of the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, which Norton helped start in 1997. In 2001, Federici introduced Abramoff to her then-boyfriend, Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles, and then served as a liaison between the two. Meanwhile, Abramoff and his clients donated at least $500,000 to Federici’s organization. In March, Griles, who resigned from Interior in 2005, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. He will be sentenced on June 26.

That was just the latest in a series that sometimes resembles a bureaucratic version of pulp fiction. Here’s a recap of some past episodes:


  • April 2002: Marc Himmelstein, a former business associate of Griles and a lobbyist for companies such as Yates Petroleum and ChevronTexaco, throws a “get to know you” dinner party at his house for top Interior officials. Griles, Burton and Clarke attend. Senate Democrats think it’s fishy; the Interior inspector general investigates; Secretary Norton blows them off.
  • June 2004: Sue Ellen Wooldridge, Interior solicitor and counselor to Norton, is appointed U.S. assistant attorney general in charge of the environment and natural resources. She has been secretly dating Griles, and in 2005, the two buy a $1 million beach house with oil giant ConocoPhillips executive Don Duncan. Nine months later, Wooldridge signs off on a deal giving ConocoPhillips extra time to clean up pollution at its refineries. She resigns in January 2007.
  • May 2007: Rejane “Johnnie” Burton, director of Interior’s Minerals Management Service, steps down, followed closely by that department’s Royalty In Kind Program head Greg Smith. Under their watch, oil and gas companies skirted paying billions of dollars in royalties owed for drilling on public land.

The Animas River basin in southwestern Colorado isn’t nearly as messy as the Interior Department: it’s merely polluted by hundreds of abandoned mines that drain acidic, heavy metal-laden water. Volunteers have exhaustively studied the mines, determined which ones are the heaviest polluters and come up with plans to clean them up. But their hands are tied: If they touch the mines, they could become liable for those mines and their pollution.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had knocked down this hurdle with a plan allowing volunteer groups to clean up mines without liability. The media touted the plan as clearing the way to cleaner water throughout the West.

But in reality, the new plan means almost nothing.

The EPA plan addresses only piles of waste rock, not mines that are draining, which tend to be the worst polluters.

To open the door to cleaning up leaky mines, Congress needs to amend the Clean Water Act with a “Good Samaritan” provision. Such legislation is on the table, but numerous attempts to pass such a bill have failed in the past. Until Congress acts, hundreds of mines will continue to ooze their toxic soup, while would-be volunteers have to sit by and watch.

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