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From Agrium to DEQ

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July marked the second anniversary of John Tippets’ appointment as director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality after working 40 years in various capacities for the phosphate mining and fertilizer processing operations of Agrium and its predecessors near Soda Springs.

“It’s been an interesting transition,” Tippets told me, stressing he has proven since he was appointed by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter on July 6, 2015 that – despite misgivings by some that it was like “putting the fox in charge of the hen house” – he can make difficult decisions without a conflict of interest.

“I agreed to recuse myself from issues that dealt directly and primarily with Agrium. I did not recuse myself from dealing with issues for any of the phosphate companies. Those are big issues for the department, and it’s a lot of what we do,” he said.

Tippets has delegated other IDEQ employees to attend meetings and sign documents pertaining to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment that involves Agrium and other companies.

“I know what’s going on. I get reports, but I’m not involved at all in the decision making. So, I would say from my perspective, it’s worked very well. I think the department is able to do its work and avoid the perception of a conflict of interest with the director,” he said, adding his extensive background gives him an understanding about issues that pertain to protecting and enhancing Idaho’s air, water and land.

Starting in 1996, the death of sheep, cattle and horses from ingesting vegetation contaminated by selenium in the vicinity of historic phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho prompted companies – including Agrium, the J.R. Simplot Co. and Monsanto – to cooperate with federal, state and tribal agencies to investigate and address selenium-related environmental and public health issues.

It was determined selenium contamination is concentrated in about 75 square miles of active and historic mine lease areas within the 2,500-square-miles phosphate resource region. Jeff Cundick, U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) minerals branch chief in Pocatello, told me that 15 large selenium-contaminated sites have been identified.

Selenium is a mineral that enhances metabolism in small amounts as it occurs naturally in water and some foods. In large amounts, however, it can prove toxic.

Tippets said plans to remediate the contaminated selenium sites were progressing well when he retired as Agrium’s public affairs manager two years ago. Calling the problem “a legacy issue,” the IDEQ chief said phosphate companies did not know when they were mining for decades that selenium had the potential of becoming a contamination issue. The selenium is contained in shale sandwiched between layers of phosphate ore, not in the ore itself.

In issuing mining permits, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM often required companies such as Beker Industries, Nu-West Industries (Agrium’s predecessors), Agrium, Monsanto and Simplot to put the shale on top when mines were back filled, not realizing that exposing the shale to air and water released the selenium into the environment, Tippets said. Now that shale must be buried with impervious caps on top when new mines are developed.

“So, they’re not creating more problems with selenium, but they haven’t got all the past problems resolved yet, either. So, it’s an ongoing issue, but they’re making progress, and they know how to deal with it today. So, they’re on the right track,” Tippets said.

When the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were enacted in the 1970s, it was envisioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have oversight authority, but states would run regulatory programs, he said. Idaho is in the process of getting primacy for a program dealing with water discharges by municipalities and industries.

“In Idaho, we have to be as stringent as the federal government to have primacy, but Idaho law says we cannot be more stringent. We’re trying to find that sweet spot. We do have some flexibility in some areas, and we exercise them when we can,” Tippets said, noting there are a few high profile issues that are in dispute between the EPA and IDEQ.

Idaho is prepared to go to court against the EPA in regards to imposing on the Gem State an onerous fish consumption standard used as a human health criteria for Oregon. “It’s not resolved yet, but we think we came up with the right solution for Idaho. I don’t want to demonize the EPA. We work together with them very well and have a good relationship, but when we think what they want to impose on Idaho isn’t appropriate, we’re certainly willing to push back.”

When Tippets started his phosphate career four decades ago with Agricultural Products, which later became Beker Industries, he hired on as a laborer during an extremely cold December, using a jack hammer, pick and shovel, pouring concrete at 20 degrees below zero, working 12-hour days.

Beker shut down its Soda Springs fertilizer plant in the summer of 1986. It reopened as a Nu-West Industries operation the following summer. In 1995, it was sold to Canadian-based Agrium.

Meanwhile, Tippets learned how to operate heavy equipment and spent many years working as an instrumentation technician. He earned a bachelor’s degree in independent studies from Brigham Young University via correspondence. While working in human resources, he got a master’s degree in human resource management by taking night classes at Utah State University.

He was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1988, but resigned during his sixth term after 11 years when he became Agrium’s human resource manager. He was out of the Legislature for 11 years when he was appointed to the Idaho Senate to replace Bob Geddes. Tippits resigned his Senate seat while serving his third term to become IDEQ director.

After taking his government position, Tippets was approached by a legislator who asked him, “How many crazy environmentalists do you have working in that organization?” He said he responded: “If we have any, I don’t know who they are,” commending his staff as professional Idahoans dedicated to reasonably protecting the state’s natural resources and spending tax dollars wisely.

Tippets said he has been appointed to serve until the end of Otter’s third term, which will expire in January 2019. He said he would be willing to stay on for a transition period to assist his successor, but “it would be hard to commit for another four years.” Otter is the nation’s longest serving incumbent governor whose time in office has run consecutively. “Honestly, I can say that I’ve enjoyed this more than I even anticipated,” Tippets said.

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