State Politics

New DEQ director’s former employer has environmental record dings

The incoming director of the Department of Environmental Quality worked for a fertilizer company that is being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency and was involved in multiple incidents requiring hazardous materials clean-up.

Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, was appointed last week as new DEQ director beginning July 6. Tippets worked as a public affairs manager for Agrium, an agricultural supplier with multiple locations in Idaho and across the globe, before retiring earlier this year.

The EPA has monitored Agrium’s Soda Springs phosphate operation since 2009 after a series of spills over the years, including one in March 2007 involving 285,000 gallons of wastewater containing phosphoric acid. Pursuant to a 2009 order through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the company continues to provide data and conduct testing for the EPA.

As for the current status of Agrium’s RCRA compliance, the EPA is in confidential negotiations with the company. “Since that process is ongoing, we are unable to discuss this matter further until the negotiations or other actions related to this order are resolved,” wrote Mark MacIntyre, senior communications officer for EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle.

According to the EPA’s website, the company is listed as out of compliance with RCRA with a “significant violation.”

Since 2011, when Tippets began working for Agrium, the company also has been listed on 21 hazmat incidents across the country, including a serious truck accident in Idaho that killed the driver and spilled 500 gallons of liquid nitrogen into a drainage ditch in February 2014.

That incident involved a contracted transport company and not a truck owned by Agrium. The driver was not an Agrium employee, records confirmed.

Of the 20 other hazmat incidents, some of the leaks were minor, and involved transport companies and non-Agrium employees. Others, however, were the result of improper packaging on Agrium’s part, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Hazmat Intelligence Portal.

The Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t respond to hazmat incidents by itself; that’s the purview of the Bureau of Homeland Security. However, DEQ assists on some clean-ups, providing on-site control and assessment, according to Elizabeth Duncan, a spokeswoman for Bureau of Homeland Security. DEQ also continues to monitor the scene and ensure hazardous materials are properly removed.

The number of hazmat incidents involving Agrium nationwide is comparable to other companies that produce fertilizer. In that same time period, the JR Simplot company had 29 hazmat incidents, including five classified as serious. Helena Chemical Company had 20 hazmat incidents, of which three were serious.

POTENTIAL CONFLICTS?

Still, the question remains: Is it appropriate for someone who worked at a company with dings on its environmental record to head the state Department of Environmental Quality?

In an interview with Idaho Reports, Tippets said he had agreed to recuse himself from any DEQ discussions specifically involving his former employer, and knew he would have to be sensitive regarding discussions involving mining, fertilizer and agri-business. As to whether he would recuse himself from decisions affecting similar companies, he said that would be too broad a decision to make.

“Where do you draw the line? That’s a little difficult,” Tippets said.

Tippets added there are advantages to having someone with agri-business experience heading the DEQ.

“I think, frankly, it can be a good thing to have that insight,” Tippets said. “You kind of know the questions to ask.”

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, who appointed Tippets, said the hazmat incidents weren’t specifically addressed during the appointment process. “However, you should know we talk to all appointees about potential conflicts and the perception of conflicts and how those issues would be addressed, if and when they arise,” Hanian wrote in an email to Idaho Reports. “Sen. Tippets was treated no different.”

As of Friday, Agrium officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

Davlin is host of Idaho Public Television’s Idaho Reports.

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