Bush's Choice for EPA Job Oversaw Worsening Pollution in Idaho
Published on Monday, June 23, 2003 by Knight-Ridder
Bush's Choice for EPA Job Oversaw Worsening Pollution in Idaho
by Seth Borenstein

WASHINGTON - Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, President Bush's top candidate to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has cut his state's environmental budget three times and sharply reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.

During Kempthorne's four-and-a-half-year tenure as governor, Idaho's pristine air has gotten dirtier, more rivers have been polluted, fewer polluters have been inspected and more toxins have contaminated the air, water and land, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of Idaho pollution data from EPA and state records.

In the same period, the nation's air and water have gotten cleaner on average, and fewer toxins have been emitted, EPA officials said Monday in a draft report.

Kempthorne is the leading contender to be the nation's top environmental officer and had a good White House interview for the job two weeks ago, according to Republican officials, Washington business leaders and Kempthorne aides.

"We're hearing a constant drumbeat of support for Kempthorne," one well-placed Washington business leader told Knight Ridder on Monday. A top aide to one Democratic senator with strong connections to environmentalists added: "We're anticipating it to be Kempthorne." Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution from the Bush administration for violating confidentiality about a nomination that hasn't been announced yet.

Coping with a state budget crisis, Kempthorne has cut Idaho's environmental services budget three times in the past two years. A court order this year is forcing the state to increase monitoring and cleansing polluted waterways.

With that expensive court mandate absorbing much of the declining state environmental budget, Idaho is "trying to keep (inspections) to a bare-bones minimum," Jon Sandoval, the chief of staff for the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, told Knight Ridder. "Anything else outside the court order either got postponed, stopped or delayed."

Kempthorne, 51, is a former one-term U.S. senator and mayor of Boise. He was elected governor in 1998. He is known in Washington as a hard-line conservative, but in Boise as a pragmatist. He would be a dramatic change from Christie Todd Whitman, a moderate whose resignation as EPA chief will take effect Friday.

Kempthorne clashed in November 2001 with Whitman's EPA over the Coeur d'Alene Basin Superfund cleanup, which the EPA wanted to expand against Idaho's wishes. At a public hearing, Kempthorne said: "I have become so frustrated with EPA that I'm on the verge of inviting EPA to leave Idaho. ... There is a bureaucracy that seems to ignore any efforts at a solution."

"He has not neglected nor turned his back on the environment," Kempthorne press secretary Mark Snider said Monday. The achievements of the administration are "quite remarkable," Snider said. "There's a lot more to the records than raw numbers would show."

Snider said Kempthorne had elevated the state environmental agency to Cabinet status, increased water and air monitoring and attacked such controversial issues as grass burning and dairy odors. Smoke from forest fires and changes in federal regulations have skewed air-pollution numbers, he said.

In some respects, Idaho under Kempthorne has bucked national trends that showed environmental quality improving, according to EPA records on air pollution, water quality, toxic emissions and pollution enforcement.

While 35 states and the nation as a whole reduced the amount of toxins released into the environment from 1998 to 2000 - the most recent year of available data - Idaho increased emissions by 2 percent. National emissions decreased by 9 percent in the same period, an achievement Whitman hailed Monday as an environmental success story.

Idaho emitted 59 pounds of toxins per resident on average in 2000, according to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory. The national average was 25 pounds of toxins per person in 2000.

With 76 million pounds of toxic releases in 2000, Idaho - population 1.3 million - has more total toxic emissions than California, population 33.9 million.

Although Idaho has some of the cleanest air in the United States, its air quality worsened from 1999 to 2002, while Kempthorne has been in office, compared with the previous four years. There were 11 violations of EPA air-pollution standards in the four years before Kempthorne came to power and 22 in his first four years in office. At the same time, the number of air violations decreased by 3 percent nationally.

Water pollution has changed little in Idaho under Kempthorne, with the amount of polluted rivers and streams barely increasing from 20,900 miles in 1998 to 21,000 miles in 2002, according to a draft state report released this month. In 2002, 56 percent of Idaho's rivers and streams were polluted. The national average in 2000 was 39 percent.

Idaho is under a court order to check and clean its approximately 1,000 polluted waterways faster and better. In 2000, Idaho was one of only five states that didn't report to the EPA on the health of its 700,000 acres of lakes.

Most air- and water-pollution inspections in the nation are done at the state level, and Idaho lags slightly behind. In Idaho, 315 of the 412 facilities that environmental officials keep track of haven't been inspected in the past year, for a noninspection rate of 76.5 percent, according to EPA enforcement data. Nationwide the rate of noninspection is 71.8 percent.

For companies that are known violators of pollution regulations, Idaho has a much worse inspection history than the rest of the nation; 63 percent of "significant violators" haven't been inspected in the past year. Nationally, 48 percent of significant polluters haven't been inspected in the past year.

Idaho statistics show that inspections for air pollution violators dropped 38 percent from 1999 to 2001 and that "warning letters" to air polluters decreased 68 percent in the same period.

After a rocky first four years as governor, when "he wasn't perceived as a very strong leader," Kempthorne has turned that image around in Idaho, said James Weatherby, a Boise State University political science professor. Kempthorne pushed a sales tax increase - the first in 16 years - through the most heavily Republican legislature in the nation.

His environmental record in Washington has earned him a near-zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental political lobby. Kempthorne voted with the environmental organization only once in 70 votes.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents business interests, gave Kempthorne a near-perfect grade, saying he voted on their side in 78 of 81 votes.

Idaho political observers were surprised at Kempthorne's interest in the EPA job, noting that the environment hasn't been one of his top priorities.

"He didn't have a particularly high profile on environmental issues," said Michael O'Connor, who headed the EPA's liaison office with state officials, including Kempthorne, during the Clinton administration.

Those who know him in Boise say Kempthorne would do fine at the EPA.

"He may be defined as anti-regulatory, but you just don't see that. He's a problem solver," said Bill Jarocki, the director of the Environmental Finance Center at Boise State University. "He's a tremendously charismatic speaker. People like him. People like to work for him."

© 2003 Knight Ridder