WyoFile Energy Report

Go ahead and blame EPA, but don’t politicize the science

Associated Press writer Todd Dvorak deserves kudos for nonchalantly revealing the obvious in a story about a research team linking the occurrence of 2-headed fish to selenium pollution from a phosphate mine near the Wyoming-Idaho border:

“Those findings would appear to undermine the company’s recent proposal to relax the water quality standards for two selenium-tainted creeks near Simplot’s Smoky Canyon Mine in southeast Idaho’s phosphate patch,” Dvorak wrote.

OK, I’m following the logic. Then I spit out my coffee as I read the company’s response:

“But to Simplot, the deformity data is just one component of a complex research project that when reviewed as a whole supports setting a new standard for measuring selenium concentrations and cleaning up polluted creeks,” Dvorak wrote. “For Simplot, working with rules allowing for higher levels of selenium than currently allowed could save time and money devoted to cleanup and future monitoring.”

By now, I should be able to hold my coffee. But it’s difficult.

The notion that the best thing for our human health, environment and wildlife is more mining and drilling and less (or loosened) regulation somehow continues to gain traction in today’s anti-federal government environment. It was with a straight face that Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) told a group of reporters in August that companies must be allowed to extract minerals at full-scale so that they are profitable, and in return that profitability allows them to use the best new technologies to minimize environmental impacts.

“So the more we move forward in these technology developments here in Wyoming the more we can develop our resources and continue to have not only the environment we have now but a better environment in terms of our air quality and the use of our land,” Lummis said.

Lummis was talking about the dangerous concentrations of ozone in the Upper Green River Basin that sometimes result from natural gas activity in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline. By allowing for year-round development (bypassing best wildlife practices), operators were able to invest in emission-reducing equipment and operational strategies that actually cut total tailpipe emissions while increasing the number of wells drilled — for a little while.

That more-wells-fewer-emissions trend occurred in one snapshot in time, and it still didn’t prevent 13 dangerous ozone spikes at the lower emissions level. Yet state leaders, and pro-industry politicians like Lummis, appear to accept a theory by EnCana Oil & Gas USA that the industry can continue to reduce emissions by drastically increasing the rate of drilling activity in the proposed Normally Pressured Lance (NPL) field surrounding the Jonah field.

Of course, neither EnCana nor Gov. Matt Mead will promise citizens in the Upper Green River Basin that they can expect ozone-free winters under the more-wells-fewer-emissions theory. That’s why many citizens and environmental groups are very grateful for federal environmental laws and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Believe it or not, they worry that government leaders in Wyoming may be under some influence of the very industries that the state’s economy relies upon.

It’s almost uncomfortable to watch Wyoming’s regulatory leaders struggle between the opposing pressures from their political bosses and the people who insist on protecting human health and the environment. Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality administrator John Corra said he was grateful that EPA Region 8 stepped in to investigate the groundwater pollution near Pavillion because that agency has expertise and resources that Wyoming DEQ lacked. Yet, when EPA issued a draft report on its investigation, Corra was among a group of state officials casting doubt on the legitimacy of EPA’s draft report.

A similar situation played out when Wyoming lawmakers refused to increase Wyoming Occupational Health and Safety Administration penalties for proven violations leading to the death of a worker. Afterward, the potential fines bumped up slightly anyway, because discounts were stripped from penalty assessments at the federal level.

I sometimes sense a huge sigh of relief from state-level regulators and local politicians when they outwardly claim; We had no choice. The feds made us do it. No doubt, there are many legitimate complaints about bureaucratic flaws. But there’s a difference between what’s powerful and what’s right, and we need federal agencies like EPA and OSHA to provide political cover for elected officials and their appointees who don’t have the courage of conviction to say, No, you can’t clean up the environment by adding more pollution to it.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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