Thanking Bill Ruckelshaus, Father of EPA, Foe of Pebble Mine

EPA Administrator for Presidents Nixon and Reagan publicly opposed Pebble Mine as “fundamentally flawed,” “the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place.”
Bill Ruckelshaus and Joel Reynolds
Credit: Steve Van Landingham

EPA Administrator for Presidents Nixon and Reagan publicly opposed Pebble Mine as “fundamentally flawed,” “the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place.”

Much has been written about the remarkable record of public service that characterized the long and varied career of William Ruckelshaus, who died at the age of 87 last week. He was founding Administrator (and eventually twice Administrator) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), as well as the Deputy Attorney General whose commitment to the rule of law—refusing President Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox—led him to resign (along with then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson) during the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” in October 1973.

His was a profile in Constitutional courage that in Donald Trump’s Justice Department today—under the capitulating control of Attorney General William Barr—is difficult to imagine. His commitment to environmental protection and to the agency that he founded in 1970 and rescued in 1983—from its decimation by Administrator Anne Gorsuch at the outset of the Reagan Administration—is a singular example of environmental leadership in the history of this country.

I first met Bill Ruckelshaus in 1973 when I was 20 years old, interning for seven months in Washington, D.C., at EPA’s Office of Mobile Sources, during my sophomore year of college. I don’t recall much about that meeting except for two things: first, its location—in a conference room on the 12th (and highest) floor of the agency’s offices at Waterside Mall, in the southwest section of the District; and, second, from my seat along the wall, the sense of excitement I felt in observing a meeting of the agency’s young leadership staff, including Ruckelshaus himself, gathered around a large conference table, engaged in their work of environmental protection.

Forty years later, in January 2013, in his office in downtown Seattle, I met him again—this time to talk about the reckless Pebble Mine, a massive copper and gold mine proposed for construction at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild sock-eye salmon fishery, in Bristol Bay, Alaska. In support of an unprecedented opposition coalition in Alaska—Alaska Natives, commercial and recreational fishermen, hunters, conservationists, businesses, over 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents—NRDC was (and remains today) deeply engaged in fighting this uniquely destructive scheme.

The meeting was arranged by Gwen McCaw, a long-time friend in Seattle, and joined by NRDC colleagues Niel Lawrence and Steve Van Landingham. We talked with Ruckelshaus for over an hour, during which he listened attentively, under a large and (given our purpose) promising painting of fly-fishing in a stunning Alaskan landscape, prominently featured on the wall behind his desk. 

He asked questions, expressed his sympathy with our concerns about the project, and recounted his own experience with EPA’s rarely used authority under section 404(c) of the federal Clean Water Act—a provision under which a coalition of Bristol Bay tribes had formally requested the agency’s intervention to defend the Bristol Bay fishery and their way of life from likely destruction by the Pebble Mine.    

In the following years, we met again—or talked on the phone—about the latest developments, and I eventually asked for his help in urging the Obama Administration not just to consider but to exercise its 404(c) authority against Pebble, as the Bristol Bay tribes had requested. He enjoyed telling stories about his personal experience with some of the most ignominious names from my youth, including Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. He told these stories with a smile and remarkable recall. He asked with affection about NRDC’s founder John Adams, laughing that “no one sued me more than he did.”

But although Ruckelshaus sympathized with opponents of the Pebble Mine, he initially deflected our requests to engage publicly on the issue. He felt it wasn’t his place, as a former EPA Administrator, to weigh in on matters pending before a current Administrator. And he maintained that resistance until sometime in 2017, when, with the appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator, his frustration in watching the dismantling of the agency and environmental protections he had worked to create and enforce caused him to change his mind.

He truly was the “father of EPA”—as Pruitt’s successor Andrew Wheeler described him last week—and he was deeply disturbed by Pruitt’s undisguised and aggressive animus toward the agency’s mission and programs. Behind the scenes, too, Pruitt was actively working to undermine the agency’s regulatory initiatives, including over the Pebble Mine. Just months after becoming Administrator, Pruitt met privately with Pebble’s CEO and, without consulting the agency’s technical staff, promptly directed them to back away from safeguards that, based on a three-year peer-reviewed, publicly-vetted scientific process, the agency had formally proposed under section 404(c).


The Washington Post

By the Fall of 2017, Ruckelshaus had seen enough, and he agreed to endorse a bipartisan public statement, drafted largely by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and ultimately joined by former Republican EPA Administrators William Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman, condemning the Pebble Mine. In 500 words published in the Washington Post in December 2017, these unimpeachable national leaders in environmental protection and conservation—including EPA Administrators from the Presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush—left no doubt about their strong opposition to the Pebble Mine:

The question of whether to build a massive open pit copper and gold mine in the heart of the planet’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery has a simple answer. The Pebble Mine is the wrong mine in absolutely the wrong place, and the answer is no.

The statement noted the exceptional opposition to the Pebble project in Alaska and its failed history even in the mining industry:

Alaska Native communities have assessed the mine’s impacts on their livelihoods and way of life and have reached the same conclusions. Commercial fishermen in Alaska say that “large-scale mineral development activities present serious risks for the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.” They are among the 65 percent of Alaskan voters who believe the Pebble Mine poses an unacceptable threat to the state’s fishing industry.

Even the mining companies initially backing the Pebble Mine have concluded it’s a losing proposition. The mining giant Rio Tinto abandoned the project in 2014. Anglo-American withdrew its 50 percent stake in the project in 2013, taking a $500 million loss in the process. Mitsubishi Corporation sold out in 2011.

And, specifically with respect to EPA’s work on the Pebble Mine, the statement continued:

Scientists recently completed a thorough, four-year review of the mine and its impacts on the watershed. The study found that the mine would destroy pristine wetlands, that roads and pipelines would slice through salmon-spawning streams, and that toxic chemicals would threaten Bristol Bay’s waters.

. . . .

Understanding the project’s risks, and at the request of Alaskan tribes, the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to use the federal Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. Unfortunately, the last remaining company in the Pebble Limited Partnership sued to stop the Clean Water Act process, falsely claiming the EPA was acting outside of its authority.

This year, before the lawsuit was resolved but within months after the Trump Administration began, the EPA, now under the direction of Administrator Scott Pruitt, agreed behind closed doors to reverse course, settling the Pebble Partnership’s lawsuit and abandoning the science-based Clean Water Act process intended to protect the Bristol Bay region and its fishery.

The statement concluded:

We oppose the Trump Administration’s efforts to sweep nearly a decade of science and Clean Water Act review under the rug. The record is clear: The Pebble Mine is fundamentally flawed—it’s the wrong mine in the wrong place.

And the choice is simple. Protect the greatest salmon fishery on the planet. Protect Alaskans and the Bristol Bay watershed.

In the years since, this statement has not only been re-published in the Post, Politico, and The Hill but, slightly modified, was submitted by Ruckelshaus (joined by the other signatories) as a comment on the deeply flawed draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to support Pebble’s federal permit application.

The Administrators’ statement has been referred to repeatedly in a wide range of communications, from print and television media to social media to formal administrative comments to correspondence with members of Congress and potential investors in the Pebble Mine. It is a powerful reference point for bipartisan opposition to this widely condemned project, and it will continue to be cited for that purpose as long as the Pebble Mine remains a threat.

Over the many decades of his public life, there are countless accomplishments and actions for which Bill Ruckelshaus has earned our lasting gratitude, and my longtime NRDC colleagues could speak volumes about many of them. While his public stand against the Pebble Mine is only one example, it is a lasting and critically important response to a project that profoundly threatens the people, communities, and wildlife of Alaska and, more broadly, the future of humanity.

Because if we can’t say no to a development as irredeemable as this one—if we can’t stop a scheme so destructive in its impacts to a vast global landscape like Bristol Bay—how can we hope to meet the far more complex global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss?

Into his final days, time and again, Bill Ruckelshaus met the challenge. For that, all of us at NRDC are deeply grateful. And we will never forget him.

Bristol Bay, Alaska
Credit: Robert Glenn Ketchum

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