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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beyond The Headlines

Air Date: Week of

Ronald Reagan’s choice for EPA Administrator was Anne Gorsuch, who resigned her post following a charge from Congress that the EPA had mishandled the Superfund program. (Photo: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In this week’s trip beyond the headlines, Peter Dykstra and Host Steve Curwood take a look at the parallels between the scandals of the EPA and Interior Department leadership during the Reagan and Trump presidencies. Then, the pair looks back to the Great Boston Molasses Flood in 1919.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood and it’s time for a trip now beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter is an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s EHN dot org and Daily Climate dot org. Hey Peter, we haven’t spoken since before the holidays. Happy New Year, and how’s it going?

DYKSTRA: Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, and everything else, Steve. You know, it's been a while since we talked, like you said, and one of the things that happened during the break is that Ryan Zinke, the controversial Interior Secretary, resigned and that got me thinking about Ronald Reagan’s scandal-plagued picks to run both Interior and the EPA. It was the same playbook, slashed regulations, crushed agency morale, reduced budgets, but at least Ann Gorsuch, Reagan's EPA administrator and James Watt, who ran the Interior Department, were able to last into the third year of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

CURWOOD: That's right, and of course Ann Gorsuch brought up Neil Gorsuch, her son, with us today as a Supreme Court justice

DYKSTRA: And Scott Pruitt remained off the radar since his resignation from EPA back in July. He's reportedly working as a coal industry consultant now. He's barred from working as a lobbyist for five years as a former cabinet official, but both Pruitt and Zinke left a trail of unfinished investigations, some of which are falling into the lap of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

CURWOOD: Yeah, let's focus on Zinke; I think he's spending a lot of money on lawyers these days

DYKSTRA: He is. It's unclear exactly how many investigations popped up for things like lavish expenditures on his office, lavish travel expenditures, security, and some shady deals involving real estate and his political cronies.

CURWOOD: And some of this stuff is really pretty serious, it's not just optics, the Justice Department is looking into it, right?

DYKSTRA: Right. There's the land deal in Ryan Zinke’s hometown, Whitefish, Montana. It involves Zinke and the oil industry giant Halliburton, and that one may trail Zinke well beyond his departure from government.

CURWOOD: Hey, I think I recall Whitefish as the location of that two-person firm that was briefly hired to oversee the rebuild of Puerto Rico's entire electric grid after Hurricane Maria.

DYKSTRA: That's right, Whitefish Energy was hired for $300 million. They were quickly dismissed, because the two guys in Whitefish, Montana were not up to the job. But they've gone on to snag other more modest federal contracts, raising eyebrows, not raising any other inquiries. Which brings us to another revelation about EPA. Each of EPA’s 10 US regions is snoozing at the enforcement switch. They dropped enforcement actions by 7% in EPA’s Midwest region, to 77% right here in the beautiful Southeast, and there's a similar decline in pollution fines that the agency's collected.

CURWOOD: That's a rather inelegant way to try to reduce the federal deficit, Peter, I would say. Hey, what do you have in the history vault for us today?

DYKSTRA: Oh, well, you know, this is a story I really love, but it's the hundredth anniversary of the great Boston Molasses spill, which took place on January 15, 1919.

CURWOOD: The molasses spill…oh yeah, that's right! In downtown Boston.

The Boston Molasses Disaster occurred when a large molasses storage tank burst open, and the resulting wave of molasses flooded the streets, killing 21 people and injuring 150. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: That's right. Sounds funny, until we remember that 21 people died when 2.3 million gallons of molasses poured from a ruptured tank, crushed buildings. It buried a city block, it smothered those 21 people and an untold number of horses. An absolute tsunami of molasses in January, and one of the most unique environmental tragedies in history.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you Peter, for that sticky story. Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s EHN.org and DailyClimate.org, and we'll talk to you again real soon.

DYKSTRA: Okay, Steve, thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: There's more on these stories at our website, LOE.org.



The Washington Post | “Neil Gorsuch’s Mother Once Ran the EPA. It Didn’t Go Well.”

The NY Times | “Watt Quits Post; President Accepts With ‘Reluctance’”

The Seattle Times | “Whitefish Energy Gets US Contracts After Puerto Rico Ouster”

Mother Jones | “The Real Story Behind the EPA’s Efforts to Hire a Hyper-Aggressive Political Operation”

The Conversation | “The EPA Has Backed Off Enforcement Under Trump – Here Are the Numbers”

HISTORY | “The Great Molasses Flood of 1919”


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