John Tippets takes the helm this week of the state agency that protects Idaho water and air quality after a career in phosphate mining.
Some critics suggest that he will be like the fox guarding the henhouse. But that’s not the view of Justin Hayes, program director for the Idaho Conservation League.
Hayes, who has taken on mining and other industries over issues such as mercury contamination and groundwater pollution, says he’s seen Tippets act with integrity on behalf of his former employer Agrium and as an Idaho senator on the committee that oversees the 340-person agency with a $66 million budget.
“He’s a very thoughtful person,” Hayes said. “I see a much greater potential for mischief from lobbyists in the Legislature than having an honest, thoughtful person at the helm of DEQ.”
Beyond Hayes’ personal respect, his views about Tippets come from watching the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality go from an underfunded industry punching bag to an agency of professional, respected regulators who work with industry, environmentalists and residents to protect Idaho’s lands, waters and human health. He’s not alone.
“DEQ is a pretty small agency, but the programs they have are very well run,” said Jim Werntz, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Idaho office. “I think when you hear that people worry about industry and foxes guarding the henhouse, I think what they really want is an experienced manager with integrity to run a complex organization.”
Tippets lived in Bennington, north of Bear Lake in the southeast corner of Idaho, before moving to Boise this week. He retired from Agrium in 2014 after a 40-year career at the phosphate mining operation under various ownerships. He began as a laborer, moved up to heavy equipment operator and, eventually, to the safety department as an instrumentation technician.
He was 39 and wanted more, so he enrolled in Brigham Young University, taking classes by mail. After getting his bachelor’s degree, he got a master’s degree in human resources from Utah State University.
Tippets served in the Idaho House from 1988 to 2000, before becoming human resources manager for the mine. He returned to the Idaho Legislature as a senator in 2011; he retired from the Senate when Gov. Butch Otter appointed him to the DEQ post last month.
He says his human resources background will be especially useful in his new job.
“You don’t run a state without good people, and I’ve found that the people working for the state usually are doing it out of a desire to do good for others,” he said.
OF THE LEGISLATURE
Tippets succeeded retiring Curt Fransen as DEQ director. Fransen, who represented DEQ as a deputy attorney general beginning in 1986, urged Tippets to apply for the job.
“DEQ faces a lot of challenges and John brings some real advantages to the job,” Fransen said. “He has a good relationship with the governor and his human resources background will help.”
A major part of the job is working with the Idaho Legislature on the agency’s rules and budget, Fransen said.
“John obviously has a leg up on that,” Fransen said.
Idaho Public Television reported in June that the EPA is in negotiation with Agrium over a series of spills at its Soda Springs phosphate fertilizer operations it listed as a significant violation. One of the spills in 2007 was of 285,000 gallons of wastewater containing phosphoric acid.
Tippets said of all of the operators of the phosphate mines and fertilizer plants he’s worked for, Canadian company Agrium has been the most responsible. But he says he will recuse himself from decisions about his former employer. When he’s got to make tough decisions about other companies, he said he’s ready.
“I can do whatever it takes to do the job,” Tippets said.
Kathy Rinaldi, of Driggs, is the Idaho representative for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a group that has pushed hard to get past selenium waste from phosphate mining cleaned up. She described Tippets as a “good man, a kind man who loves hunting and fishing” and has a keen interest in fish and wildlife.
“He cares about the resource,” she said.
But she’s reserving judgment on how the former mining executive will do as the state’s top environmental regulator.
“DEQ has some really professional, good people who know what they’re doing, and it’s important they are able to continue to do their job,” Rinaldi said.
MAKING THE SYSTEM WORK
Tippets says he doesn’t want to disrupt things that are working.
“I see myself as a consensus-builder,” he said.
Trent Clark, Monsanto’s public affairs director in Soda Springs, represents several mines and processing facilities in Tippets’ Senate district. Despite his support for economic growth in his district, Tippets cared about more than just jobs.
“He would always want the right answers from all points of view,” Clark said. “He would often send me back to the drawing board.”
Part of the reason that Werntz, Hayes and Fransen don’t expect Tippets’ industry background to prevent him from doing his job is that federal laws require EPA and the states to be partners in regulatory oversight. Historically Idaho has evolved from outright opposition to environmental regulation to a collaborative approach that most industries support.
They learned that fighting EPA was costing them dearly, Clark said, but they were getting less environmental results and little or no productivity gains.
“The system doesn’t work if we’re having continual conflict,” Werntz said.
In 1986, when Fransen came on board, the Legislature had defunded the air quality program and turned it over to EPA. It soon became apparent that the move was a mistake and the state took back the program. Now Idaho is seeking to take over the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permitting program. It’s a big job, but Idaho is just one of four states that does not manage its own program.
With the support of Idaho industry, the Legislature approved taking on the task, and DEQ is on target to develop the rules and staffing necessary to meet EPA standards for taking it over. But it’s going to take money to pay for a program that meets federal standards and gets permits out on time.
“It turns out this is a lot of work,” said ICL’s Hayes. “John is going to have to convince the Legislature we’re going to have to grow government.”
Clark said the relationships and respect Tippets has in both the House and Senate will make that work.
“John is going to ask some very tough questions,” Clark said. “If he concludes they need the funding, you will find no better salesperson than John.”