EPA official resigns after crucifixion comment

WASHINGTON Mon Apr 30, 2012 5:28pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A regional Environmental Protection Agency chief based in Dallas resigned on Monday, days after Republican lawmakers uncovered comments in which he compared his enforcement of energy companies with crucifixion.

Al Armendariz, who was the chief of EPA's Region 6 office, which includes refinery-rich Texas, Louisiana and three other states, sent a letter of resignation to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson late on Sunday. She accepted it on Monday.

"I have come to the conclusion that my continued service will distract you and the agency from its important work," Armendariz said in the letter.

He became a casualty in a war Republicans in Congress have waged against a raft of EPA rules on pollution from fossil fuel plants they say risk damaging the economy.

Lawmakers including Senator James Inhofe, a Republican and long-time critic of the EPA, circulated a link to a video of an Armendariz speech in May 2010, in which he compared his enforcement strategy on energy companies that had broken the law to that of Romans taking over towns in the Mediterranean.

"They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw, and they'd crucify them," he could be heard saying in the video, shot months after he had taken the job. "And that town was really easy to manage for the next few years."

He said his strategy was to make an example of companies that were not complying with the law, in the comments made at a council meeting in a small Texas town.

Republicans in the House of Representatives have battled the EPA this year, introducing bills that would slow or stop the agency's rules on pollution.

They say the rules will lead to shutdowns of power plants and refineries and higher energy costs for consumers as they struggle to recover from the weak economy. The measures have faced an uphill battle in the Democratic-led Senate.

EPA EASING UP

Still, as businesses and Republicans have complained, the EPA has delayed several of its measures on energy. This month the EPA delayed until 2015, part of a rule that requires natural gas drillers that do hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to add equipment to tackle air pollution.

Ahead of the November 6 election, President Barack Obama has been walking a fine line between promoting drilling of vast new resources of gas that can be accessed through fracking and regulating an industry environmentalists say can pollute air and water supplies.

Armendariz was in charge when his office brought several actions on drillers that were fracking for natural gas. In one case his office brought an emergency order on Range Resources alleging its operations had polluted drinking water in Parker County, Texas.

But in the past two months the EPA has backtracked on at least three pollution claims related to fracking, including dropping the charges against Range.

This year the EPA conducted tests on water at 61 homes in the small Pennsylvania town of Dimock, where Cabot Oil & Gas Corp had fracked for gas in 2008. Since mid-March, the agency has released test results from most of the homes showing that the water was safe.

But Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Public Works, said resignation did not go far enough. "His resignation in no way solves the problem of President Barack Obama and his EPA's crucifixion philosophy," Inhofe said in a release.

Inhofe is conducting an investigation into the EPA which "tarnished the reputation of companies" by accusing them of water contamination, he said.

The Sierra Club, an environmental group that has fought the building of new coal plants and gas export terminals, was unhappy with the resignation.

"The only people who will celebrate this resignation are the polluters who continue to foul Texas air and the politicians who serve those special interests," said Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club in Texas.

An industry group said Armendariz was the one serving special interests. "There's a role for activists and there's a role for regulators," said Steve Everley, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry-backed group that promotes natural gas drilling. "When one becomes the other, that's when you can run into problems."

(Reporting By Timothy Gardner; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Maureen Bavdek and Richard Chang)

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