Michael Riordan guest writes. He lives on Orcas Island and covers energy and environmental issues.
As recently reported, State Senators Don Benton and Doug Ericksen have headed to Washington, DC, to lead a “beachhead team” grabbing the reins at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Talk about sending foxes to guard the hen house!
These are obvious political rewards for leading the state Trump campaign. In May 2016 they organized political rallies for him in Spokane and Lynden. Security costs for the latter totaled over $300,000 in state and local funds, none of which has yet been reimbursed. And a later Everett rally must have cost a similar sum, if not more. All told, state taxpayers likely had to foot bills totaling about $1 million in support of these blatantly partisan rallies — especially if indirect costs are included.
And what did that public money pay for, besides security? It helped Donald Trump gain the Republican nomination by winning the primary in our state, which subsequently rejected him overwhelmingly in the general election. Clinton drubbed him here by more than half a million votes — a landslide margin of 52 to 36 percent.
Surely Benton and Ericksen realized that their candidate had little to no chance of ever winning this deep-blue state. But they must also have recognized it would help further their political fortunes should he win the US Presidency, and their stars are indeed now rising in the Trump firmament. Thus Washington state taxpayers have unwittingly helped these clever right-wing politicians get where they have been longing to go.
Last year Benton had lost a lucrative $150,000/year job as the controversial head of the Clark County Department of Environmental Services, for which he was patently unqualified. That position was abolished in a government reorganization, forcing him to get by on his senate salary of less than a third as much. At the end of the year, he resigned as the senator from Washingon’s 17th district near Vancouver. He will apparently serve as at least the temporary White House liaison to the EPA. It’s not yet clear whether he will remain in this “shadow cabinet” position long term.
As Chairman of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, Ericksen logged one of the worst environmental records in the state, according to Washington Conservation Voters. He has managed to block or stall legislation on renewable energy and dealing with climate change. But what else can one expect from a state legislator who has enjoyed lavish campaign contributions and free meals from the oil-industry and its lobbyists?
Last November, Ericksen also authored an infamous senate bill labelling environmental activists as “economic terrorists,” guilty of felonies and subject to criminal penalties, including jail time for trespassing. This is called butchering the English language. Sitting peacefully on railroad tracks is an act of terror? By his warped lexicon, civil-rights activist Rosa Parks would have been a “transportation terrorist” for refusing to surrender her bus seat in 1955.
And according to recent articles and reliable sources, Ericksen hopes to stay on the EPA payroll after the transition winds down. He has reportedly been angling for the position of EPA Region 10 Administrator, just vacated by Dennis McLerran at the end of the Obama administration, in charge of Pacific Northwest operations. That’s a position with major environmental responsibility — and a six-figure salary — in charge of more than 500 employees and a budget exceeding $300 million.
Headquartered in Seattle, the Region 10 office oversees EPA’s activities in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington — including support for such projects and groups as the Puget Sound Partnership and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. It is the lead office in EPA’s environmental assessment of the controversial Bristol Bay, Alaska, open-pit mining project. And the office works closely with Environment Canada on joint efforts aimed at restoring the ecological health of the Salish Sea.
Benton and Ericksen’s “beachhead” assignments are clearly part of Trump plans to gut the agency, led by his choice for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, now under review by the US Senate. As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt repeatedly sued the agency over its measures, most notably Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from utility power plants. He is no friend of the environment — and a resolute ally of fossil-fuel industries.
On his first working day in the Other Washington, Ericksen got caught in the political crossfire that erupted after Trump transition-team members attempted to muzzle EPA scientists and staff — and to drop climate-change information from its web site. “We’re watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service,” opined Jeff Ruch, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Former EPA Administrator William K. Reilly said the agency seems to be “going down a very dark road” with regard to communicating its science.
“We’re just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration,” Ericksen backpedaled in his new role as communications director for the EPA beachhead team. Then news broke that a freeze had been ordered on all EPA grants and contracts, leading to another round of muddled apologies and excuses. It must have been a scorching baptism of fire!
Meanwhile, back in Olympia, Ericksen was missing in action. He canceled a mid-week hearing of his committee. And he was nowhere to be seen at a hearing of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee on another bill he had authored, SB 5171, meant to shackle the Department of Natural Resources and Commissioner of Public Lands in granting leases to state lands. If enacted, that bill would overrule outgoing Commissioner Peter Goldmark’s recent decision to restore 45 acres of public tidelands to the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve.
It’s indeed a sad commentary that two Washington state-Republicans with terrible environmental records stand in the forefront of the Trump administration’s attack on this venerable agency, which was established in 1970 under the visionary leadership of William Ruckelshaus, now a San Juan County resident. Since its origins under President Nixon, many Pacific Northwest politicians, from both sides of the aisle, have heartily endorsed its environmental activities. This stauch bipartisan support has been crucial in EPA’s successful efforts to clean up the nation’s air, lands and waters, which were in a woeful state when the agency was launched. Are we headed back to those bygone days?
Defenders of the Pacific Northwest environment must resolutely oppose these looming appointments with every possible means at their disposal.