Regional EPA director quits - He takes legal job in private sector

Karen Dorn Steele
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

July 21, 2004

John Iani, the regional head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with jurisdiction over Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska, is leaving for a legal job in the private sector. His resignation is effective Aug. 7.

Ron Kreizenbeck, EPA deputy regional administrator, will serve as acting regional administrator until a replacement is appointed.

Iani, an Alaska native and lawyer, said he was ready to leave EPA last year but decided to wait until Congress confirmed Mike Leavitt, successor to former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman for the top EPA administrator's job in Washington, D.C.

Whitman resigned after many of her environmental positions on climate change and industrial emissions were rebuffed by the Bush administration.

Iani said he's torn over leaving. During his tenure, he dealt with many tough issues, including cleanup of the Coeur d'Alene Basin, heavy metals contamination of Lake Roosevelt from the Teck Cominco smelter in Trail, B.C., Idaho field burning and sediment cleanup in Commencement Bay off Tacoma.

"I enjoyed working on Teck Cominco and the Coeur d'Alene Basin cleanup. These are very interesting issues," he said.

But the job of a political appointee at EPA is uncertain and difficult, Iani added.

"It requires you to find a balance between environmental protection and economic growth.

Whenever you make a decision, 51 percent of the people are mad at you. It wears at you after a while," he said.

Iani's plans are somewhat unclear, but he intends to stay in Seattle with his wife and three children and practice law, with a focus on environmental issues.

When he was appointed to the top regional EPA job in September 2001, a week after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, Iani was in-house counsel and senior vice president at UniSea Inc., a Redmond-based seafood processing company.

The EPA regional administrator is well-connected in Republican circles. He's a friend of former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton and also worked for Alaska's former Sen. Frank Murkowski (now Alaska's governor) and Rep. Don Young.

Under Iani's tenure, the EPA issued an order last December to Canadian company Teck Cominco Ltd. to start cleanup studies on Lake Roosevelt.

Teck Cominco and lobbyists for the U.S. mining and electric utility industries are fighting the EPA order, and the transboundary dispute has moved to diplomatic discussions in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa.

Iani also helped defuse political tensions over mine cleanup in the Coeur d'Alene Basin, the region's biggest and priciest Superfund site at a time when Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne threatened rhetorically to kick the EPA out of Idaho.

Under Iani and Whitman, a Record of Decision for a $359 million, 30-year cleanup was signed in September 2002.

A leading Spokane environmentalist had both praise and criticism for Iani.

He's been an advocate for cleanup, "in contrast to others in the EPA in the past such as (former EPA regional administrator) Robie Russell, who used his position to block cleanup," said John Osborn, a Spokane environmentalist.

But Iani gave too much authority to Idaho officials to direct the Basin cleanup and also didn't work with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the watersheds of the Coeur d'Alenes, Osborn said.

"The two federal agencies don't talk to one another. They are two ships passing in the night. Despite our repeated efforts to get Iani to take a leadership role in connecting these two agencies, we were unsuccessful," Osborn said.

Iani said that he's proudest of his work on several issues: A compromise with the U.S. Forest Service that reduced the amount of salvaged timber harvested after a fire in the Siskiyous in southern Oregon; a regional temperature guide for water quality to protect endangered salmon; enhanced environmental safeguards for future oil and gas exploration in Alaska; and moving the Silver Valley cleanup along.

"I'm proud of the Coeur d'Alene Basin loggerhead that got broken up. That could have easily gone into limbo," he said.

Iani also challenged environmental critics who said the Bush administration has hurt the environment in the Pacific Northwest.

"In this region, it bothered me that there's a general complaint about Bush rolling back environmental progress. I couldn't find a single instance of it in Region 10," he said. "We did a lot of good things for the environment, but it didn't seem to play very well."



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