By Ken Ward, Charleston Gazette-Mail
Last week, Randy Huffman was taking the last few pictures off the walls of his third-floor office at the state Department of Environmental Protection. Group photos of youth sports teams he coached. Family portraits. Some shots of prize-winning fish he’s caught.
Friday was Huffman’s last day on the job as DEP secretary. He declined an expected offer to stay on after Gov.-elect Jim Justice takes office, instead accepting a full-time post with the West Virginia Air National Guard, where he’s served since he turned 18. On Friday, Justice named longtime coal industry consultant Austin Caperton III to take over as DEP secretary.
Perhaps more than any other branch of state government, the DEP is a lightning rod for scrutiny and criticism. One way or the other, no matter what the DEP does, somebody ends up unhappy. If you are looking in san diego chiropractor click here.
Since May 2008, Huffman has been in the middle of some of the most bitter political, economic, social and environmental fights in West Virginia.
Depending on who you ask, Huffman is the guy who has denied all evidence of mountaintop removal’s damaging effects and refused to end the practice, or who led an agency that takes far too long to review and approve mining permits. He’s the one who wouldn’t stop fracking, or the guy who put needless hurdles in front of one of West Virginia’s few growing industries.
After eight-and-a-half years, Randy Huffman had a few things to say about how West Virginians make environmental policy and the DEP’s role in that process, about how state government more broadly operates, and about how top agency officials, like cabinet secretaries, interact with the press, the public and their own employees.
Huffman, with more than 30 years at the DEP and its predecessor agencies, said he sees a state government — and a state itself — too often playing defense instead of offense, reacting to one crisis after another instead of proactively planning the future. He views government as frequently being too secretive and afraid of thinking big about how West Virginians can find common ground to overcome challenges and navigate uncertain times.
“So many people just can’t take criticism at any level,” Huffman said during one of several lengthy interviews over the last few weeks. “My biggest frustration in government has been the acceptance of the status quo and of these broken systems. There are too many folks out there who are too scared of risks. They will make decisions that are in their best interests [instead] of decisions that are in the best interests of the organization.”
‘They have this ideology’
In early October 2010, Huffman joined then-Gov. Joe Manchin for a highly promoted press conference at the Capitol. Manchin was announcing his administration was, through the DEP, suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop what Barack Obama’s EPA was billing as a major crackdown on mountaintop removal coal mining. The EPA was giving new mining permits additional scrutiny and moving toward tougher limits on water pollution from strip mining.
Huffman remains a strong critic of the Obama EPA. He said he doesn’t like the agency’s policy initiatives on strip mining or climate change, and he remains especially opposed to what he and many other state leaders say was a strong-arm effort by federal officials to usurp state authority to crush the coal industry. In many ways, Huffman’s tenure at the DEP — mirroring pretty closely Obama’s eight years in the White House — was defined by the state’s struggle against the EPA.
“There’s no question in my mind, what I’m about to say, I might not be able to prove it to you in a court of law, but I believe it in my heart, because I experienced it,” Huffman said. “The Obama administration came to power with a desire to minimize if not eliminate coal mining and the use of coal. They have this ideology that coal should be eliminated. It’s dirty, it has health problems and it also, the big one, is its contribution to climate change.”
Huffman doesn’t dispute there are significant negative impacts from coal mining, and he acknowledges many of the laws and regulations the DEP enforces were passed in response to mining’s serious impacts. He doesn’t generally challenge the worldwide scientific consensus burning coal contributes greatly to global warming. And he acknowledges the huge downturn in West Virginia’s coal industry has been fueled by a variety of factors, with the rise of cheap natural gas not being the least of those.
But politically and economically, Huffman said state leaders he worked for, Manchin and his successor, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, had little choice but to fight the EPA. He noted, with a bit of a laugh, Manchin’s press conference announcing the suit against the EPA was held just a few weeks before the special election in which Manchin was seeking the U.S. Senate seat open when longtime Sen. Robert C. Byrd died.
“I serve a governor in a coal-producing state. That’s what we do and who were are,” Huffman said. “So that’s the position we took and the position we continue to take, and so we’re going to oppose, and I suspect will continue to oppose, the attempts to marginalize coal or coal mining or natural gas extraction for that matter.”
But, in 2010 and still today, Huffman said his major concern was not necessarily holding the coal industry to tougher pollution standards or even taking strong action to do something about climate change. He said his beef has always been with the way Obama and his EPA went about those things.
“My position has always been defending the rule of law. You can’t make rule changes the way they tried to make rule changes,” Huffman said.
Still, despite winning at the district court level in its suit challenging the process the EPA used to institute tougher permit reviews and new water-quality guidance, a federal appeals court later upheld the EPA’s actions, saying, in effect, federal officials had lived by the rule of law. “It turned out that they won. We might not ever agree that they were right,” Huffman said. A separate case, in which the DEP is supportive but not a party, challenging the EPA’s climate-change rules for coal-fired power plants, has yet to be decided. And for Huffman, the concerns about federal officials dictating environmental rules and, in effect, broad energy policy, to state governments remains.
Broad policy making by government rule, rather than by congressional action that might require more negotiation and consensus, Huffman said, makes people on the losing end pretty unhappy — as Obama supporters and Pres.-elect Donald Trump opponents are about to find out.
“I would think that all of us, even if we completely disagree on our ideology, we ought to agree on the rule of law for how we make these kinds of major decisions,” Huffman said.
What bothers Huffman just as much, though, is the deteriorating quality and tenor of the public debate over issues like climate change, especially on the national level. “Intelligent debate, critical thinking, has been quashed, and we’re down to one-liners and Facebook memes, and that’s how we’re trying to govern and decide policy, and it’s just terrible,” Huffman said.
“I’ve seen so much name-calling and hard-line positions that I have been able to come to a place personally where I understand that most people want the same thing, but because they have a different idea about how to get there or a different idea of what it should look like doesn’t mean that their motivations aren’t pure or honorable, just as yours are.
“So I’ve come to appreciate these varying opinions and perspectives a whole lot more,” he said. “That’s a fairly recent phenomenon, an end-of-career phenomenon, maybe that comes from age as much as anything else.”
‘No one will miss me’
Four days after his high school graduation, Huffman was at basic training in San Antonio, Texas. For a working-class kid from Ruth, in rural Kanawha County, south of Charleston, joining the National Guard was a way to pay for college. Neither of his parents went to college, and it was understood as he was growing up that he would be the first in his family to do so. Family, faith and working hard were values he learned from an early age.
“It’s a different world now,” Huffman said. “I look at the world around me and see so many problems that relate back to not having a good home life, having a broken home. To this day, I’m 54 years old, and I still think very much about what my mother and father would say about decisions I make — would they approve of that? That’s something that matters.”
In 1986, Huffman got his degree in mining engineering from West Virginia University Institute of Technology in Montgomery, and went looking for a job in the coal industry. But mining was on the downside of one of its boom-bust cycles. The old state Department of Energy was hiring, though. Huffman got on working for the Abandoned Mine Lands program, working to clean up coal mines abandoned before the 1977 federal strip-mining law was passed.
“It turned out it was the greatest gift that God ever gave me to not find work there [in the coal industry], because it wouldn’t have lasted,” Huffman recalled. “I had never considered government as an option and came here as a last resort. And literally from the day I showed up I never looked again outside government. I just liked the nature of the work. The ability to go into a community, find people who have a need, and you’re able to take the people’s resources and meet that need. There was just something addictive about that.”
Huffman moved up, being hired to run the state’s relatively new program to clean up old garbage dumps, created as part of sweeping solid-waste laws in the late 1980s.
Later, he took classes on the side for seven years to earn a business administration degree and was promoted to chief of administration of the DEP.
Huffman then became director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, in charge of regulating the state’s coal industry. He took on additional duties when that job was combined with the DEP’s deputy secretary position, and he eventually became secretary — and member of the governor’s cabinet — in May 2008, first under Manchin and then Tomblin. He’s been in charge of the DEP, an 800-employee agency with a more than $200 million annual budget, longer than anyone else since the state’s various environmental programs were combined in 1992. Huffman has gotten some attention for his after-hours activities as a professional angler, but few members of the public probably know he also teaches Sunday school just about every week. Also probably lost in the background of major environmental fights are Huffman’s efforts to make the DEP a better place for West Virginians who care about the environment to have a career.
For example, Huffman has fought to change the state’s job-classification system so DEP inspectors who are good at that job and want to keep doing it can advance up the state scale without moving to some other position. He created a program for the DEP to find emerging leaders within agency ranks and to be sure they learned vital lessons from the department’s history and got strong training to help move the agency forward. Huffman has also overseen the DEP as the state’s first generation of environmental protection leaders — who came into government with the passage of strong new laws in the 1960s and 1970s — have retired. To survive into the future, he said, the DEP had to find better ways to make the agency a comfortable place for a new, younger generation that greatly valued a work-life balance.
A lot of this, Huffman said, is drawn partly from his experience in the military, where the top job of any commander is to make sure his or her troops are trained, rested, fed and equipped.
“Once you recognize as a leader at any level that it’s not about you, it’s about your people, then you begin to build a successful organization,” Huffman said. “I can walk out of here Friday afternoon and I promise you they will not miss a beat and no one will miss me. And that, to me, is the greatest compliment to me for my leadership style.”
‘I saw a lot of angry people’
After all his years at the DEP, you would think Huffman had seen it all. Then came Jan. 9, 2014.
A tank leaked at the Freedom Industries facility just upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional drinking water intake on the Elk River. Hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses were told not to use the water for up to a week in an incident that’s become known as the “water crisis.”
In the days after the spill, Huffman was a constant face at press conferences and public meetings. He often took the heat for then-Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling, whose agency — not the DEP — actually regulates drinking-water quality in West Virginia. For his part, Huffman conceded his agency could have done a better job policing chemical tanks like the one at Freedom, even at one point correcting Tomblin, clarifying the tank wasn’t “unregulated,” as Tomblin had told the press, but “under-regulated.”
When lawmakers tried to strip a bill to better police such tanks of its strongest provisions, Huffman encouraged the Legislature to instead strengthen the measure. During one heated legislative committee meeting, a collection of DEP staffers declined to support a variety of exemptions to the bill, even though many of those provisions mirrored those in Tomblin’s original bill.
Looking back, Huffman said the Freedom spill and its aftermath were a turning point in some of his thinking about the DEP and about how environmental policy gets made in West Virginia.“
I think it was coming anyway, but I think the water crisis, the tank leak and all that came with that probably has more quickly shaped my thinking and my philosophy,” Huffman said.
“Going through that whole process, I saw a lot of angry people who were not the ‘angry-for-show’ people I typically dealt with,” Huffman said. “They were people who had businesses that were losing money and had small children and all those things.
“When I watched that and experienced it … I saw on the other side too, I saw a lot of what you might categorize as ‘industry-type folks’ defending us and defending our laws, our rules, our processes and procedures.
“That, for the first time, wasn’t satisfying for me. It was empty. I appreciated the support, but I just felt like, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We had a major vulnerability to our drinking-water supply that was exposed, and it pointed to a lot of other vulnerabilities across the country, I think. And I became more sensitive to people’s expectations of government, I guess.”
Huffman noted the policy initiative most directly linked to his change of thinking following Freedom is the DEP’s successful effort to redesignate the Kanawha River so it could possibly be used as an alternative drinking-water source for the valley. He also noted the related press by Huffman himself to maintain the agency’s longstanding protection of all streams statewide as potential drinking-water sources, a classification known as Category A.
Just last month, Huffman pulled a proposed water-quality rule from the 2017 legislative session agenda when it became clear industry lobbyists — despite the rule including a major weakening of limits for cancer-causing chemicals — were going to use the proposal to try to strike the statewide Category A designation. So far, industry officials have not come out to publicly criticize Huffman for blocking any effort in that direction.
“I’m dying for somebody to be publicly critical of me for pulling that rule,” Huffman said. “Do we want, even after Freedom, to make the drinking-water standards, instead of applying everywhere, to apply only right there at the intake? So we’re willing to give up 33,000 miles of stream protections and only protect it at each of these however many intakes we have around the state?
“That’s why you never saw any public criticism,” Huffman said. “How could they possibly gain any ground? We may never know what [Category A] prevents, what disaster that prevents to our water supplies, not only on the Kanawha River, but anywhere in the state.”
On other issues, while Huffman continues to draw criticism for not somehow — it’s not clear how the DEP alone could do this — stopping mountaintop removal, he did last year pave the way for the National Academy of Sciences to perform an examination of the growing number of scientific papers showing residents living near large-scale surface mines face greater health risks.
Huffman has also quietly tried to encourage DEP inspectors in the Marcellus Shale region to work harder to see a variety of impacts on residents are addressed by natural gas drillers and producers.
“When we run into issues out there that are subjective in the regulatory world, like the noise and light and mud on the road, the degree of a lot of that is subjective,” Huffman said. “I tell my folks there’s an easy standard here. The easiest one is to say if you lived in that house, how would you do it? Use your mother, if your mother lived in that house. “If you approached every person who had an issue out there with an activity that we regulate, if you approached them with the same sensitivity you would if it were your mother, because that is somebody’s mother, and they don’t need to be subjected to these kinds of inconveniences and nuisances in their lives. I have this notion that we need to be very sensitive to that.”
‘I’m not afraid to say just about anything’
In an age when so many government communications with the media are through often cryptic emailed statements that say little, Huffman has been a bit of a throwback.
He returned phone calls. He gave straight answers to straight questions. He liked to argue and debate. He gave lengthy, unscripted interviews without insisting his communications director sit in on them.
“The whole notion of transparency, it’s an overutilized, underpracticed thing,” Huffman said. Across state government, Huffman also watched other agencies and other officials worry too much about what they should and shouldn’t give the media.
“The whole Freedom of Information Act is about the public having a right to this information,” Huffman said. “Give it to them. Give them what they ask for. Give them what they want. Given them what you think they want.
“We don’t have many discussions when we get a FOIA request about what’s FOIA-able and what’s not,” he said. “If they want it, and they asked for it, give it to them.”
Huffman said being open with the media and transparent to the public is all about integrity, and once government agencies and officials start to even appear to be hiding something, they lose any public trust they might have had.
“I’m not afraid to say just about anything,” Huffman said. “Honesty creates a credibility, a trust factor. If I am anything but 100 percent transparent, I am calling my integrity into question.”
Huffman said he finds himself caring more and more about government transparency now that he’s leaving his state job.
“It’s highly important to me that I know the truth from the people that I elect or I vote for or the government officials who serve me,” he said. “Yeah, it’s going to be twisted, and it’s going to be used sometimes for illegitimate purposes, but, at the end of the day, it’s always going to be worse if you try to withhold something or manipulate or manage what you give out.”
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.