Sunday, September 18, 2005

Trent Lott -- Villian, Bully

As we're all trying to figure out who is most to blame for the damage caused by Katrina, let's not forget Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. Two recent stories describe remarkably similar incidents in which this bully used his power to thwart implementation of laws that would have protected his state and limited the damage caused by Katrina.

On September 7, the Washington Post informed us that:
In Mississippi, 20 glittering casinos sprouted at the water's edge. An Army official tried to impose a moratorium on casino projects along the coast in 1998 but was outmuscled by developers and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). All those casinos, which employed 16,000 people, now lie wrecked and broken.
The article explains:
In 1998, Deputy Assistant Army Secretary Michael L. Davis tried to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from rubber-stamping casino applications without studying the impact dredging would have on marshes that shelter wildlife, purify drinking water and help prevent flooding. This angered Lott, then Senate majority leader, who had recently flown to Las Vegas in a casino executive's jet and had raised $100,000 for Republicans at a casino-industry fundraiser.

Lott got the moratorium lifted, then he got the Army to launch an investigation of Davis. No wrongdoing was found, but Davis was removed from Gulf Coast permitting issues.
It turns out that Lott didn't bully only Davis. The September 19 New Yorker has an brief article by Jane Mayer based on an interview with Clinton's EPA Administrator, Carol Browner.

Last week, speaking from her office at the Washington consulting firm where she now works, she recalled the difficulties that her department experienced years ago when they tried to persuade legislators, including Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, that building on wetlands was environmentally risky. Developers, and the politicians who supported them, argued that gambling would attract commerce to the state.

The proposed casinos, Browner said, “were supposed to be in the water because the state didn’t want them on the solid land.” (To accommodate the moral qualms of conservative locals, the legislature relegated gambling to “navigable waters.”) She went on, “But they were huge, and they were right up against the shore. If you put structures this big into an estuary, you’re disrupting the aquatic life and changing the habitat and eradicating the wetlands, which has a huge effect on drainage. The wetlands act like a sponge in a storm. They’re an incredibly smart and helpful part of nature. But they have to be kept moist, like a sponge on your kitchen counter. If they’re dried out, and developed, they don’t work. The shoreline’s a very important buffer in a storm.”

Browner said that Lott was not alone among politicians in his disregard for the environment. “For fifty years,” she pointed out, “there’s been significant inattention to the environmental consequences of developing the wetlands.” But Lott was particularly single-minded in his support of casino development.

Mayer quotes Browner describing how when she first became Administrator Lott put a "hold" on an EPA nominee as a "warning" to her.

Then, in 1997 another EPA nominee needed Senate confirmation and Lott put a hold on that nominee too. According to Browner, Lott said, "It’s not about the nominee. . . . It’s because I want you to fire another employee, because he’s standing in the way of wetlands permits needed for casinos." Browner continues:

“He wanted me to fire this guy who was handling the wetlands permits down in our regional office in Atlanta,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it if I’d wanted to. I told him I wasn’t going to. It’s the job of the E.P.A. to enforce Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which covers all wetlands permits, and this guy was doing his job.” Browner said that she did not tell the employee in Atlanta, because she didn’t want him to feel pressured. “Lott thought the guy was working with the Army Corps of Engineers to hold up the casino permits, and he was determined to get rid of him.”

Browner said that Lott kept the hold on the nominee for several months. “We couldn’t get the confirmation through,” she said.

Then Browner hears that the wetlands permit officer had changed duties within EPA.
“I called Lott,” Browner said, “and I told him that I didn’t fire the guy but
that he was gone. That very night, the E.P.A. nominee was confirmed.”
Mayer's article never explains how it was that the permits got approved, nor why the wetlands permit officer changed duties. In any case, according to these articles, Trent Lott sought to get federal government employees fired in two separate incidents because they were implementing laws to protect the environment and to limit flooding. Lott therefore played a key role in damaging wetlands that could have limited flooding, and in promoting the construction of casinos that were doomed from the moment they were built.

No doubt Lott will lead an effort to generously compensate his casino owner friends for their losses, and to allow them to destroy additional wetlands when they rebuild. Don't be surprised if he tries to squash civil servants who may get in his way.