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Former BLM whistleblower questions Abbey’s suitability for new MMS post

Earle Dixon

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the appointment of Bob Abbey as the new acting director of the Minerals Management Service (MMS), he said Abbey’s leadership of onshore energy reforms, “is exactly the kind of experience we need as we continue to reform and begin to restructure MMS.” But that is not how a former whistleblower at the Bureau of Land Management, Earle Dixon -- who was fired by Abbey six years ago after raising numerous environmental concerns at a BP-owned copper mine in Nevada - sees things.

“Robert Abbey is environmentally unconscious,” said Dixon, in an exclusive interview with GSN: Government Security News on June 1.

Abbey was selected as interim chief of MMS because the Department of Interior – and the broader Obama administration – believe there is an inherent conflict-of-interest at the service, which acts as a single agency trying to collect revenues from the leading companies in the oil and gas industry and simultaneously distributing drilling leases and overseeing the safety of drilling operations for those same oil and gas companies.

“When an oversight agency is paid by the companies it is regulating, that’s a conflict-of-interest, and it’ll never be a true regulator,” said Dixon, who has investigated environmental conditions at several commercial mining operations around the country. “They’ll always have more compassion and consideration -- more than is necessary -- for the regulated party.”

Dixon certainly discovered that to be the case when he was hired in 2003 as an environmental protection specialist in the Carson City, NV, field office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a bureau whose Nevada State Director at the time was Bob Abbey.

Within weeks, Dixon began to see evidence of toxic contamination at the inactive, 3,500-acre Yerington copper mine, which at that time was owned by ARCO (formerly called Atlantic Richfield), a U.S. company that had become a subsidiary of British Petroleum, or BP, three years earlier. Dixon voiced his environmental concerns about the Yerington mine to his immediate superiors at BLM, and it wasn’t long before his “cage-rattling” caught the attention of the Bureau’s state director.

“As soon as I got the truth meter going about the Yerington Mine, within two weeks, they were calling Robert Abbey’s office,” Dixon recalled.

Dixon’s environmental concerns at Yerington made officials at the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection – as well as its political supporters in the office of the governor, a prominent congressman, and the Lyon County board of commissioners – extremely uncomfortable because they did not want to impose rigorous inspections and costly cleanup procedures on the mining companies that are so critical to the state’s economy.

At that time, three independent agencies had signed a Memorandum of Understanding which theoretically empowered them to oversee the cleanup at Yerington, rather than passing that cleanup responsibility to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which wanted to designate the abandoned mine as a Superfund site.

“The MOU was nothing more than a gentlemen’s agreement to do a ‘Superfund Lite’ -- like Bud Lite -- because they didn’t want any extra scrutiny to be placed on the Yerington mine site,” explained Dixon, in his conversation with GSN. “They were scared of a Domino Theory that says, ‘The more you sample, the more you’ll find.’ That could have set up a template for other mines in Nevada which are also leaking and seeping stuff out into the environment,” Dixon added. “They didn’t want that.”

Dixon’s experience at the Yerington mine, and his ultimate clash with Bob Abbey, is relevant today because it might help observers understand how Abbey would balance competing interests at MMS, where drilling companies, such as BP, ought to be carefully and conscientiously regulated.

Dixon’s early run-ins with BP executives at the Yerington mine did not leave him with much faith in BP or in Bob Abbey.

As he investigated the inactive mine site, took soil samples and tested for underwater contamination, Dixon quickly discerned what he took to be BP’s over-arching environmental strategy -- “We don’t want to pay. We want to spend as little money as possible. We defend. We deflect. We delay. We avoid,” Dixon told GSN.

Dixon experienced BP’s active resistance – and Abbey’s willingness to buckle under – in the days leading up to his first public presentation to the local community about possible evidence of environmental contamination in and around the Yerington mine site.

“At the first meeting, in March 2004, I wanted to discuss with the public a hypothesis that the contamination in people's private well water – the uranium – might be coming from the Yerington mine site,” recalled Dixon. “But BP’s Dan Ferriter went ballistic, and so did BP’s consultant, SRK. ‘You can’t say that. It’s just a hypothesis,’ said Ferriter.

“I said, ‘Yes, it’s just a hypothesis, but it’s certainly possible, based on everything I’ve seen and read.’”

”They went in and re-wrote my talk and re-wrote my PowerPoint, gave it back to me and said, ‘That’s your talk.’”

“I said, ‘Fine. It’s not my talk, but I’ll go ahead and give the speech.’”

“Robert Abbey was there. I gave the speech and then looked down at him in the audience. He gave me a positive nod…because it was politically correct. It was not technically true, but it was politically correct.”

Dixon later told GSN: "My hypothesis was proven correct by EPA last year [2009] after they ordered BP to drill and sample multiple monitoring wells that scientificlly demonstrated the uranium contamination offsite in the ground water is from the mine."

As Dixon ponders the newly-announced appointment of his old nemesis, Bob Abbey, to the challenging post at MMS, where Abbey will be expected to reform and restructure a scandal-ridden agency, even as thousands of barrels of oil gush into the Gulf of Mexico each day, Dixon is not certain that Abbey is the right man for the job.

“If I take the Yerington mine site, and Abbey’s knowledge of environmental protection and cleanup, I’ve got to give him low marks,” Dixon told GSN.

As soon as Dixon found himself on one side of a tug-of-war, with the State of Nevada, the governor, a congressman, the Lyon County commissioners, ARCO and BP on the other side, he knew what Abbey would do.

“It was pretty much a given,” recalled Dixon. “Abbey was almost a political appointee in that position [as Nevada State Director for BLM]. He was there to look out for the State of Nevada’s interest, through his federal office. The higher you go, the more political it gets, and the less technical.”

Things quickly came to a head.

“Abbey tried to fire me in June [of 2003], but Don Hicks wouldn’t do it. Even so, Robert Abbey berated me for 45 minutes in front of eight other people, saying, ‘I’m tired of hearing from the State of Nevada. I’m tired of hearing from the stakeholders’.”

A few months later, after Dixon was told to neutralize his outspoken comments and was sent for training in public communications, Abbey was fed up and decided to get rid of this thorn in his side. But Dixon’s immediate superiors were unwilling to terminate him.

“Chuck Pope wouldn’t fire me,” Dixon remembered. “Elayn Briggs wouldn’t fire me. Don Hicks wouldn’t fire me. So Abbey had to reach down from fourth level management to fire me.”

Dixon was officially terminated in October 2004, a few days before the completion of his one-year probationary period.

“I’m pretty sure they thought, ‘We’ve dusted this guy off. We’re not going to hear from him again,’ said Dixon. “But, a month later, it all blew up in the newspapers and it was basically me against the State of Nevada.”

As GSN reported on June 1, a Department of Labor administrative judge ruled in Dixon’s favor in 2006, and a two-judge appellate panel, reaffirmed that judge’s initial decision two years later.

Dixon has found a new job as an environmental officer with the State of New Mexico, and his life has moved on, but he is somewhat concerned about Bob Abbey’s continuing climb up the career ladder.

“Robert Abbey was hostage to State of Nevada politics,” Dixon lamented.

Dixon thinks the decisions Abbey made in his employment case were not particularly personal, but reflected the political realities that Bob Abbey confronted then – and still confronts today – at his level in the bureaucracy.

“Even Robert Abbey will tell you that Earle Dixon does great work,” Dixon told GSN.

“They just don’t want to hear the truth sometimes.”

 

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