The fate of one of the largest open-pit mines ever envisioned in the country may be in the hands of one man -- U.S. EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran.
Discussions over potential limits to the Pebble copper and gold mine in southwestern Alaska have reached all levels of the Obama administration, including EPA headquarters and the White House. But it's officially up to McLerran to make a recommendation to EPA water protection chiefs.
In February, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and McLerran jointly announced the agency's review of whether to pre-emptively veto Pebble under Clean Water Act Section 404. But last month, when the agency released its proposal to severely limit the scale of the project, it was only McLerran on the phone with reporters (Greenwire, July 18).
When asked about the future of the water protection guidelines outlined in the agency's proposed determination for Pebble, McLerran said he was the decider at this point in the process.
"The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world's last intact salmon ecosystems," McLerran said in a statement. "Simply put, this will be a uniquely large mine in a uniquely important place."
McLerran may be uniquely qualified to deal with one of the Obama administration's most controversial environmental actions. Loyalists say he has years of experience working to protect the environment in a way that doesn't antagonize the regulated community.
President Obama appointed McLerran to lead EPA's Seattle-based Region 10 in January 2010, roughly a year after taking office. Members of his state's congressional delegation recommended him for the post. McLerran declined an interview for this story.
"He is one of the most highly respected governmental officials in the country," said William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, who has known McLerran for two decades. "He's smart, he has great instincts, he is well-liked, he is firm but fair."
McLerran's life has largely revolved around his native Washington state. He's a graduate of the University of Washington and Seattle University School of Law.
He served as the head of Seattle's Department of Planning and Development and in the mid-1990s became responsible for implementing the Clean Air Act in several counties as executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
"It's a leadership and guiding role in setting direction and policy," said Craig Kenworthy, the organization's current head. "Dennis created a lot of respect for us as an agency. He created a sense that we were pragmatic problem solvers."
McLerran's legacy includes helping reduce diesel emissions, which were fouling the region's air quality. Kenworthy said McLerran worked with industry to find fuel cost reductions as an incentive to cutting pollution.
The Port of Seattle, he said, was a top source of diesel emissions. It also was connected to another of McLerran's priorities: reducing pollution from incoming vessels.
Kenworthy said McLerran pushed for a rule to require ships to switch to cleaner-burning fuel as they approached the area's ports. The effects would be felt not only in the Puget Sound area but also in several states beyond the West Coast.
"Even though this seemed to be a coastal issue, it was Dennis who had the foresight to understand these issues resulted in problems inland," Becker said.
But rather than approach the issue with a regulatory heavy hand, Kenworthy said, McLerran looked for ways to incentivize the switch and get shippers ready for the change.
"You still have interests who don't like that rule," Kenworthy said. "Russia tried to unravel one part of the emissions standards."
Other McLerran accomplishments include pushing to retrofit school buses with emissions controls and new clean air standards for cars.
Tom Dow, public affairs vice president for Carnival Cruise Lines in North America, said he worked with McLerran during the effort to hook ships to shore power and, more recently, on installing smokestack pollution controls.
"In both instances, Dennis was available for discussions and offered advice that was beneficial," Dow said. "He is willing to work with the private sector to advance technology that can improve air quality, which has always clearly been his objective."
Dow added: "I remember a conversation from one of our first meetings in Seattle. Dennis told me that incidences of childhood asthma were higher in neighborhoods close to the port and waterfront; shore power would make a difference, so we should work to make it happen."
Coincidentally, former Pebble CEO John Shively was once head of government relations for the Holland America cruise line, and pollution issues were part of his portfolio.
Pebble developers declined to comment for this story. But company officials have been very outspoken about EPA's actions with regard to the Pebble project, calling them an illegal overstep of agency authority.
"For this reason, we fully intend to continue our litigation against EPA in order to halt the pre-emptive and unprecedented regulatory process under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, and invalidate the conditions proposed by EPA Region 10," Pebble CEO Tom Collier said in a recent statement.
'On the shyer side'
Becker has been following McLerran's involvement in Pebble. "He is not a political person, he is not parochial; he does what is best for public policy and what's best for the welfare of citizens," he said.
But no matter his intentions or his ability to bridge divisions, McLerran is unlikely to sway Pebble or its allies. And regardless of his history in dealing with issues beyond his backyard, Alaska is unlikely to back down from its demand that EPA butt out.
Kenworthy said McLerran may be all about finding common ground in achieving environmental protection goals, "but he's going to get there" whether or not he can persuade all stakeholders to come together.
Becker said, "This is not a job for the weak. You can't have a thin skin, and if you do, you can't let that affect your job. It does pain me a bit to see someone as nice and highly regarded as Dennis thrown into the middle of such controversy."
McLerran, 63, is married to an attorney and has a daughter in college, a source said. He enjoys the outdoors, including cycling and kayaking.
"I would say he is on the shyer side," Becker said. "He speaks when he needs to. He's smart. He takes in the situation before he responds. He is one of the most modest people I've ever known."
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