A Tale of Two Senators

A Tale of Two Senators

In May 2011, I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington, D.C. with my wife Michelle in order to attend the opening reception for the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards Photo Exhibition, on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. In advance of that trip, I made sure to schedule visits with both of my U.S. Senators – Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski. As part of the scheduling process, I explained to them why I was going to be in the District of Columbia – my winning image in the “Environmental Issues” category of a set of snow-impacted wolf prints on the frozen North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, a piece entitled “Wolf Tracks on Ice.” I did not tell them the story of why this image was submitted in the Environmental Issues category – that these wolf tracks were a metaphor for disappearing wolf populations as a result of aggressive predator control measures – because I thought it would be too political for either of their comfort.

As the timing turned out, my visits with both Senators were scheduled for the same day – the day of the reception. I met first with Senator Begich in the late morning. When I arrived, at least three of the staff engaged me and Michelle, asking questions about my award and talking about Alaska. They offered us some coffee and invited us to a tour of the Capitol building following the meeting with Senator Begich. And while we had to wait a little while  – the Senator was off voting on something – they made us feel welcome and continued to engage us. When the Senator arrived, we went into his conference room and sat down with another Alaskan and her family who were visiting. We all sat around the table and chatted a while about why each of us was in D.C. After a while, we each took turns taking photos with the Senator. Following the meeting, as promised, one of the staff took us on a tour of the Capitol building. He even gave us tickets so that we could sit in the galley of the Senate and watch the proceedings. Later, staff visited the Smithsonian to see my photo on display there and even posted it to the Senator’s Facebook page (and they were cognizant and considerate enough to ask my permission to post an image of my photo).

Our meeting with Senator Murkowski was later in the afternoon. We arrived at her office, I identified myself and that I had an appointment with the Senator, and then we sat down in the reception area. We looked at the art on the walls, we looked at what kind of books were on the shelves, what sort of magazines were on the table. Occasionally the receptionist looked up at us, then back to what she was doing. No one asked us questions. No one engaged us. No one offered us something to drink. No one explained to us why we were waiting well past the appointment time with the Senator. As it turned out, she was meeting with a gaggle of lobbyists. After waiting for a while, the door to the inner sanctum opened and out poured a group of five or six lobbyists in suits, chuckling and chatting away with Senator Murkowski as she emerged with them. Parting words and sentiments were shared and they were on their way. Michelle and I were then invited back to join the Senator, we had a brief chat (with little or no discussion of my photo), and took pictures – one set with just me and one with me and Michelle. They only took one shot of each – and the one with Michelle is no good because her eyes were closed. We were then sent on our way. The only follow up to the meeting was delivery of the prints of the photos.

These two experiences understandably left me with a very different perspective on the values, interests and concerns of these two Senators.

These personal interactions highlighting differences between the Senators have also been replicated in a key Alaskan policy issue that is important to me: the fate of the Bristol Bay region. Bristol Bay is an amazing watershed that provides 50% of the world’s sockeye salmon and has been a focus of mine for the last three years, where I have been doing fieldwork for my upcoming book Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. When several regional Tribes petitioned the EPA to protect the area under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), the people of Alaska waited to see how its U.S. Senators would respond. People pushed Senator Begich to take a stand to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from the development of the Pebble Mine. He delayed, noting that he wanted to wait for the results of the EPA’s scientific watershed assessment (which began in 2011) before taking a position. But once that final watershed assessment was published in January 2014, he came out in opposition to the development of the mine. In contrast, when the final watershed assessment was released, Senator Lisa Murkowski issued a statement asserting that the EPA’s involvement was a “preemptive veto” that would set a “terrible precedent.”

To be clear, however you phrase it, a “preemptive veto” is precisely what the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c) authorizes. Here is Section 404(c) in full:

The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.

So, the key phrases to notice are “authorized to prohibit” and “deny or restrict” using an area as a disposal site … when the “discharge of such materials” would have an “unacceptable adverse effect on … fishery areas.” The law also requires notice and opportunity for public hearings. The EPA conducted numerous public hearings in 2012 and 2013, and has even given additional notice to the Pebble Limited Partnership of additional public hearings following the release of the final watershed assessment.

Sometime after Senator Murkowski complained that it would be improper for the EPA to issue a “preemptive veto” of the Pebble Mine, someone on her staff must have actually read Section 404(c) and realized that, yes, Congress did authorize the EPA to do such a thing. Well, if Congress has authorized an agency to do a specific thing, how do you stop the agency from doing what Congress has authorized? You get Congress to de-authorize it. Hence, Senator Murkowksi became a co-sponsor of the Orwellian “Regulatory Fairness Act of 2014.” The bill, if passed, would strip the EPA of the specific authority granted in Section 404(c). From 1980 to 2010, the EPA has invoked Section 404(c) only 13 times – 11 times during Republican administrations (Carter’s EPA invoked it once and Obama’s EPA invoked it in 2010). Given that no effort was made to strip the EPA of its Section 404(c) power in its prior uses, it’s clear that the purpose of the “Regulatory Fairness Act” is to ensure the development of the Pebble Mine.

But these are just my own observations, based on personal experience and reflecting on a specific policy choice where I have invested time and energy. Don’t just take my opinion that these two Senators have vastly different world views, take it also from the League of Conservation Voters. On their National Environmental Scorecard, the LCV viewed votes on 13 different bills in the Senate and gave the two Senators very divergent scores. For Senator Begich, both his 2013 score and his lifetime score are 77% – that’s consistency. But for Senator Murkowski, her most recent score was 38%, a dramatic improvement from her lifetime 21% score. In either case, it’s still a failing grade and her votes went against several issues that impact Alaskans – climate change, clean water (no-show on the vote), the confirmation of the EPA Administrator, and subsidizing the oil industry.

And some people say that all Senators are alike.

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