Mr. Clean’s Last Stand

As the first administrator of the EPA, Bill Ruckelshaus banned DDT and got the lead out of gasoline. Now the Republican Party’s most illustrious green faces a tougher task: to save Puget Sound. His cleanup plan hinges on convincing the region’s mo

By Ted Katauskas December 13, 2008 Published in the November 2008 issue of Seattle Met

THIRTY-SEVEN FLOORS ABOVE SECOND AVENUE, Bill Ruckelshaus gazes over Elliott Bay from a thronelike leather chair behind a massive cherrywood desk facing an L-shaped bank of ceiling-high plate glass. From this panoramic perch—Ruckelshaus’s corner office at the Madrona Venture Group, the VC firm that helped launch Amazon—Puget Sound appears pristine. It surely looks tempting to a seasoned sportsman like Ruckelshaus. As usual, he’s wearing waterproof Rockports, tan corduroys, and a brown tweed sport coat over an open-at-the-neck oxford shirt. He looks as though he might at any moment pluck the rust-colored waterproof anorak from its hook behind the door, hire a float plane, and soar off into a real-life version of the almost life-size oil painting that hangs on the wall behind him. It shows a younger Ruck casting into the roiling Karluk River on Alaska’s Kodiak Island.

At 76, six foot four and 180 pounds, Ruckelshaus is still built like a football player—just like his larger-than-life father, a powerful Indiana attorney who’d been the tallest high school basketball player in the state. But he has always favored fishing, a sport in which calculated patience rather than brute force wins the trophy, over football. He can certainly afford to take an afternoon off; he’s a multimillionaire who lives in a seven-bedroom Medina mansion a few hedgerows from Bill Gates. But two years ago, after leading the drafting of the Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, a federally sanctioned regional recovery plan for endangered chinook salmon, he lost his appetite for fishing local waters; he couldn’t in good conscience kill something he had resolved to save. Besides, he hasn’t had the time. Not while the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency Governor Chris Gregoire picked him to lead last May, scrambles to make a December 1 deadline for releasing its much anticipated master plan to restore not just a single aquatic species but the entire Puget Sound ecosystem by the year 2020.

Ruckelshaus’s CV includes many tough battles and monumental achievements, charted in the course of a civil service and business career that spans half a century: establishing the Environmental Protection Agency (a torturous process he likens to the more recent birthing of the Department of Homeland Security), defying Richard Nixon by refusing to derail the Watergate investigation, returning to rebuild Ronald Reagan’s scandal-plagued EPA, even taking on the New York City Mafia as chief of the nation’s second-largest trash hauler. But all these milestones pale against the complexity and scale of the challenge he’s taken on now.

That might explain his frown, the bushy white Gandalf brows furrowed in uncharacteristic consternation rather than raised to punctuate a punch line. Ask Ruckelshaus’s friends to describe the man and they’ll inevitably use words like “modesty” and “integrity,” but the first thing they usually mention is his wit. Former Delta Airlines CEO Gerry Grinstein, a Madrona partner who lives near Ruckelshaus on an estate formerly owned by Bill Gates, calls him “Bucklenuts.” Grinstein once gave a framed portrait of himself holding a freshly downed pheasant, neck hanging limply, to Ruckelshaus—who promptly had it mounted above the urinals in the Madrona men’s room.

In his own office, the handful of black and white photos from Ruckelshaus’s Beltway days don’t merit a “Me Wall,” or any wall at all. They’re propped against a bookcase on the floor, under all those panoramic windows. One shows a 1970-vintage Ruckelshaus with a full head of coal-black hair, standing beside his wife, Jill, and Tricky Dick himself, right hand raised as Chief Justice Warren Burger swears him in as EPA administrator. Another taken a decade later shows him balding, with a bad comb-over, sandwiched between his daughter Cathy and a beaming Ronald Reagan, starting his second tour at the EPA’s helm. Below is Reagan’s cartoonish scrawl: “Portrait of a happy day. I know for sure it was for one of us, and I hope for all three. Warm regards, Ron.”

Reagan “was one of the most likable human beings I have ever met,” says Ruckelshaus. “It was absolutely impossible not to like him. He was a lot more curious about the environment than Nixon ever was. Nixon never asked me, ‘Is the air really dirty? What’s everybody so worried about?’ ”

That Ruckelshaus hasn’t gotten around to hanging his photos is in keeping with the down-to-earth farmer’s sense of self he’s preserved through all his years in Ivy League universities and the professional and political stratosphere. On his first day at the EPA, the agency sent him a black stretch limo. He kept the driver but downgraded to a prototype natural gas–powered sedan. When he assumed the helm of Browning-Ferris Industries in 1984 after his second EPA stint, he converted the sumptuous executive penthouse at its Houston headquarters to conference rooms and took an office on a lower floor, nearer the rank and file.

Ruckelshaus nods at the Nixon photo, then turns with a faraway look back to the pearlescent waters of the Sound. A ferry chugs toward Bainbridge, and the white teeth of the Olympics saw at the horizon.

“I was 38 years old,” he muses, recalling his arrival at the EPA in 1970. “It was a very exciting time. Environmentalism was new. Back then, the issue was gross pollution. We had flammable rivers, just terrible situations. People could see the pollution. Feel it. Touch it. It’s different today. You look out at Puget Sound and you think, What’s wrong with Puget Sound? It looks beautiful. Particularly at sunset, with a sailboat going by. Today’s environmental problems are much more subtle. You don’t get this physical reinforcement that something is wrong.”

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One might argue that the modern environmental movement was born in Seattle on September 9, 1969. That was the day Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson delivered a groundbreaking keynote address at the Pacific Science Center, announcing a nationwide demonstration against pollution, which was beginning to eclipse the Vietnam War as the country’s most pressing concern. Back then, a sulfuric pall hung over the Rust Belt, smog choked even Hollywood, the City of Brotherly Love was called “Filthydelphia,” and Cleveland’s oil-and-chemical-slicked Cuyahoga River caught fire. When Earth Day dawned on April 22, 1970, tens of thousands demonstrated in just about every city in America; in Manhattan, more than a million packed Central Park and shut down Sixth Avenue.
“[President] Nixon wasn’t much of an environmentalist, but he was a helluva politician,” recalls Denis Hayes, director of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, who dropped out of graduate school at Harvard to serve as Earth Day’s national coordinator. “There were 20 million people in the streets, including Republicans like [New York City mayor] John Lindsay saying this was something the president needed to pay attention to.”


Three months later, Nixon submitted an executive order that gathered 6,000 employees from 15 federal agencies into a single entity dedicated to policing pollution. To manage the new Environmental Protection Agency and its $5.5 billion budget, Nixon picked a lawyer from Indianapolis named William Doyle Ruckelshaus, who then headed the civil division at the U.S. Justice Department. Ruckelshaus’s credentials for this unprecedented post? In the early 1960s he’d served as a deputy attorney general assigned to the Indiana Board of Health. He’d spent his days bouncing along country roads in a government-issue panel truck with a public-health investigator named Gerry Hansler—collecting water samples, snapping pictures of gunk spewing into creeks clogged with dead fish, and turning the evidence over to the Indiana Stream Pollution Control Board, which issued citations.

Ruckelshaus was also the Princeton- and Harvard-educated scion of an estimable Indiana Republican clan: His grandfather had been state GOP chairman in 1900; his father had chaired the Platform Committee at five national party conventions. In 1966, at 34, he became the first freshman legislator in Indiana’s history to serve as house majority leader. He seemed destined for greatness. Then, in 1968, he ran for U.S. Senate but refused to go negative against Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh and narrowly lost. It seemed doubtful he’d ever make a national name for himself.

“In the heat of a campaign, people who believe in you believe it’s important to get elected no matter what and will urge you to do things that you wouldn’t do in your own quieter moments,” says his wife, Jill, a firebrand feminist whose reputation as “the Gloria Steinem of the Republican party” may have cost her husband a place on the 1976 GOP presidential ticket. “Billy’s never been tempted by any of that.”

After Nixon announced the creation of the EPA, Gerry Hansler, who now headed the U.S. Public Health Service’s New York office, decided on a lark to call a Newsweek reporter and concoct a rumor that his old pal Ruckelshaus was being considered for the top pollution buster’s job.

“I saw my name in ‘Periscope,’ and I thought, My god, where did that come from?” laughs Ruckelshaus. When the two other candidates on _Newsweek_’s whisper list declined, Ruckelshaus got the job.

“I expressed skepticism about his original appointment, something I hope he has by now forgotten,” recalls Denis Hayes. Hayes thought Ruckelshaus was a place-holder who’d gotten the job as a “consolation prize” for losing to Bayh. “But he was just terrific.”

Aside from overseeing 300 attorneys for two years at the Justice Department, the affable Ruckelshaus lacked executive experience. But he showed an uncanny aptitude as a consensus builder. He not so much led as mediated in one of the most tenuous and politically vulnerable posts in the Nixon administration.
“Had I really known what I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the job,” says Ruckelshaus. “We were in extremely uncharted waters. We had enormous power with this new agency. But some of it was phantom power.”
Until the 1970 Clean Air Act, which directed the EPA to develop and enforce national air standards, pollution control was left largely to state legislatures. In many states—especially the industrialized Midwest and Northeast—lawmakers regarded pollution as an unavoidable cost of doing business and creating jobs. But Earth Day had spoken and the president had responded. Now it was up to Ruckelshaus to prove the new agency meant business.
One of his first duties was to explain his mission to a luncheon of 1,100 auto-industry bigwigs in Detroit. A General Motors executive introduced him as “the greatest friend of American industry since Karl Marx.”

“Nixon wasn’t much of an environmentalist, but he was a helluva politician.” And pollution was eclipsing even the war.

“The guys in charge of these companies had pretty much had their own way as far as the environment was concerned,” says Ruckelshaus. “They were treating the air and water as if it were free and they could discharge anything they wanted…. If they would’ve just said, ‘God, you’re right. There is a problem here. We should’ve paid attention to this. Give us some time and we’ll make things right,’ the public would’ve had some sympathy for them.”

The Clean Air Act gave the auto industry five years to find a way to cut 90 percent of the hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide in its exhaust. Japanese carmakers agreed to the timeline, but Detroit’s Big Four demanded an extension. Over three weeks of public hearings at the Commerce Department (the new EPA didn’t have a big enough auditorium), plaintive executives pleaded but Ruckelshaus remained steadfast. By 1975 cars were rolling off assembly lines with catalytic converters, an innovation that not only reduced tailpipe emissions by 95 percent but led to the elimination of leaded gas, the largest source of lead poisoning in America’s children.
Rust Belt factories proved just as stubborn. EPA scientists had determined that a U.S. Steel coking plant outside Pittsburg—where the air was so thick it obscured the noonday sun—was the nation’s single largest source of airborne sulfur; the average life expectancy of the plant’s male workers was 55. When asked to develop a five-year plan to reduce sulfur emissions, U.S. Steel executives insisted they needed a decade. Otherwise they’d shut the plant and lay off 30,000 workers.

In Washington, Ruckelshaus, ever the fisherman, was drafting a permit system that would let factories pollute for a price, a system baited with financial incentives to reduce emissions. But the director of the EPA’s Philadelphia regional headquarters, a headstrong 30-year-old named Ed Furia, decided to take matters into his own hands. Polluters across the country “didn’t think the government was going to do anything about it,” says Furia, now CEO of AFS Trinity, a start-up plug-in hybrid vehicle company in Bellevue. “They were testing us to see whether or not we would enforce the law.”

He’d show them. Without consulting his boss, Furia notified the press, commandeered a Huey helicopter, and landed in the coking plant’s yard to personally deliver the EPA’s response: No deal.

“It would take a brilliant Hollywood special-effects team to re-create what we saw,” recalls Furia. “Open coking ovens with yellow smoke billowing up into the air, which hung over the plant like a yellow soup. It looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno.”

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When Furia returned to his office, his visibly shaken press secretary reported that Vice President Spiro Agnew had called; thinking it a prank, the secretary answered, “Spiro Agnew, huh? Well, Mr. Vice President, this is the Easter Bunny.” Agnew bellowed that the damned fool who had just shut down U.S. Steel had better start looking for a new job. Furia knew he was in real trouble the next day when Ruckelshaus, who rarely raised his voice, never mind swore, arrived in his chauffeured sedan and did both.

“He was pissed off to no end. He said, ‘Jesus Christ, what have you done?’ I said, ‘We’re just trying to enforce the Clean Air Act, we can’t let them get away with this.’ His attitude was, Why rise to the bait? And he was absolutely right. We didn’t need to engage them…. We should have just stonewalled them.”
Ruckelshaus hung tough, and the firestorm subsided. “He’s an incredible political animal, who knows how to work the system better than anybody I’ve ever met in my life.”

That was probably why, when the Watergate scandal began to break in the spring of 1973, Nixon called. Two days before he fired his top advisors and attorney general, Nixon summoned Ruckelshaus to the Oval Office and asked him to replace FBI director L. Patrick Gray, who had been forced to resign for leaking FBI memos about the investigation to the White House.

“Nixon was in such terrible straits,” says Ruckelshaus. “The administration was unraveling. The hearings didn’t start until June, but revelations about the break-in were coming out daily in The Washington Post. Mentally, he was wandering and obviously under tremendous strain. I was worried about him.”

Ruckelshaus served as interim FBI director until September when, with the Watergate hearings in full swing, Nixon appointed him deputy attorney general. He lasted 23 days. On October 20, Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox, whose investigation was pressing too close for Nixon’s comfort. Richardson refused and offered his resignation. He was just breaking the news to Ruckelshaus when the phone rang. It was Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, asking to speak with the attorney general. Richardson handed the phone to Ruckelshaus.

“I said, ‘Al, I’m not going to fire him,’ ” recalls Ruckelshaus. “He hasn’t done anything wrong. There’s no reason to fire him.’ Then he told me, ‘Your commander in chief is ordering you to fire him.’ I said, ‘I know he’s commander in chief. You don’t have to tell me that.’ ”

Ruckelshaus put Haig on hold and went to find Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to do the president’s bidding. Then he submitted his own resignation and met Jill at a dinner party in Georgetown. One guest, a Washington Post reporter, asked Ruckelshaus what was new, small talk–fashion, and charged out with an “Oh, my God!” when Ruckelshaus answered. Moments later, the five Ruckelshaus children, who had been watching television upstairs, stampeded down, wailing, “Daddy’s been fired! Daddy’s been fired!” The commentators called it “The Saturday Night Massacre.”

When the clan returned to Bethesda, their lawn was overrun with reporters. As the flashbulbs popped one asked, shouting, what Ruckelshaus intended to do next.

He smiled. “Well, I guess I’ll go fishing tomorrow. On Chesapeake Bay.”

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Overnight, Ruckelshaus became an icon. The press dubbed him the “Mr. Clean” of the Nixon administration. Fan mail arrived by the bagful. “I have vivid memories of sitting in the living room and reading all the mail,” recalls his oldest daughter, Mary, a NOAA biologist who also serves as the Puget Sound Partnership’s chief scientist. “There’d be bags of mail, people saying, ‘Thank you. That was a brave thing to do.’”

Job offers also poured in, from industries that had run afoul of EPA regulations; an ex–EPA director–turned–Watergate hero could work wonders for the corporate image, and maybe keep the watchdogs at bay. Ruckelshaus took the revolving door: He formed a law firm that helped chemical companies contest burdensome EPA regulations, then accepted a high-paying executive legal post at the Federal Way–based timber giant Weyerhaeuser, one of Environmental Action’s “Filthy Five” worst polluters, which the EPA had targeted for spraying its timberlands with dioxin-laced herbicides. Some old allies called him a traitor, but Ruckelshaus insisted he could achieve more on the inside, helping polluters reform, than he could fighting them. “If working for a company like Weyerhaeuser and trying to get them to act in an environmentally responsible way automatically taints you, well, okay. I was trying to help them adjust to what had become a much different set of societal demands.”
But really, he admits, the main draw was the Pacific Northwest, where he’d vowed to move ever since he spent two years as a drill sergeant at Fort Lewis. After Washington, DC’s political bubble, life in the lake-front mansion the Ruckelshauses bought in Medina—which, he notes, pre-Microsoft Seattle disdained as the boonies—proved idyllic. Friends followed; Ed Furia eventually moved next door. The two EPA veterans played tennis on the composite court between their driveways and sojourned with their families in the mountains. On one 1976 outing, just as the Republican National Convention was under way, Ruckelshaus returned from a hike and found a note taped to the cabin door: “Mr. Ruckelshaus: Call the White House.” He had been tapped as President Gerry Ford’s running mate; his Watergate stand would appease voters who resented Ford for pardoning Nixon. Ruckelshaus rushed home and started packing, until the phone rang again: Ford had changed his mind and chosen Bob Dole.

Seven years passed before the White House called again. This time it was Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, asking Ruckelshaus to return and replace Reagan’s EPA director, Anne McGill Burford, who had resigned amid allegations that she had dismantled the Superfund cleanup program to please Republican-connected polluters. The agency Ruckelshaus had built from scratch was nearly in ruins. Burford had slashed its budget, crippled enforcement, and wrecked morale. He’d have to uproot his family and take a $230,000-a-year pay cut, but Ruckelshaus agreed to return to DC and restore the EPA’s—and perhaps his own—credibility as a pollution buster.

A media scrum had already staked out Ruckleshaus’s driveway (Baker had leaked the story). He enlisted the help of Furia, who spirited him across Lake Washington in a motorboat to a car waiting to whisk him to the airport.
On his first day back, more than 1,000 EPA employees gathered on its headquarters’ ground-floor mall, roaring applause and hoisting banners that read, “How do you spell relief? -R-U-C-K-E-L-S-H-A-U-S!” Critics still smarting over his industry ties dismissed him as an opportunist and “professional hero.” But Seattle novelist Michael Gruber, who served as Ruckelshaus’s speechwriter in 1983, recalls that the first thing his boss did upon returning to the EPA was hang a portrait of St. Thomas More, the English statesman beheaded in 1535 for defying King Henry VIII, on the wall outside his door, right above his secretary’s head.

“The point he was trying to make was pretty clear,” says Gruber: Thomas More “went to his death rather than compromise his principles. Bill Ruckelshaus is a very principled man. [And] he’s the classic American conservative. As a public servant and a businessman, he simply does not believe that the two forces, environmentalism and business, are inimical.”

That belief underlay the first crisis of Ruckelshaus’s short-lived administration. Three months after he moved into his office, a federal judge ordered the EPA to regulate arsenic emissions at a copper smelter owned by the globe-spanning American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), which was releasing nearly a ton a day of the deadly metal into the air above Ruston, just outside Tacoma. The EPA ordered ASARCO to install additional scrubbers. But the latest equipment would only cut the arsenic by half, and the agency’s scientists had concluded that even minute exposures were unsafe.

Ruckelshaus mulled shutting down the plant, which would have devastated Ruston economically. Instead he gave residents a voice in the decision. He convened seminars there and at other downwind communities, where EPA’s risk—assessment officers presented the statistics (new scrubbers would reduce the lifetime risk of lung cancer from 9 to a still-whopping 2 in 100) and Ruckelshaus’s advisers heard concerns.

“In my judgment it really worked,” he says. “People got a much better understanding of the complexity of the decision I had to make. All the health effects were not exactly clear, and at the same time everybody understood the economic impact on people who would be out of jobs if the plant closed down. People around Tacoma started wearing buttons that said ‘BOTH’: Let’s drive down the arsenic levels as far as we can, and let’s keep the plant open.”
The rest of the country was appalled. The New York Times castigated Ruckelshaus for abdicating his responsibility, like a “Roman Caesar” asking the amphitheater crowd to signal thumbs up or down: “What is inexcusable is for him to impose such an impossible choice on Tacomans.”

“The people of Tacoma are not being asked to make the decision; they are being asked for their informed opinion,” Ruckelshaus wrote back. He concluded, as usual, with a punch line: “Your Caesar analogy is seriously flawed…. In Tacoma, the ones being asked for their reaction are at risk themselves. No one ever asked the gladiator his opinion, which may be the principal difference between Rome and the EPA.”

Despite this public thrashing Ruckelshaus still considers the Ruston resolution the crowning achievement of his second EPA tour. Never mind that the following spring, before he could issue his final “both” ruling, ore prices soared and ASARCO shuttered the smelter. (Twenty-five years later it’s slated to become Point Ruston, with a luxury hotel, upscale mall, and waterfront condos.) Ruckelshaus’s gambit is still cited in EPA circles as “the Tacoma Process.” And it’s a model for the Puget Sound Partnership’s forthcoming Action Agenda.

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Trouble is, restoring an entire ecosystem is far more complex than reducing emissions at a single smokestack. It’s a many-headed hydra—like global warming, only on a local scale.

Acid rain was the global warming of the 1980s, but its cause and cure were vastly simpler than climate change or the ailing Sound. Still it proved the undoing of Ruckelshaus’s second EPA tour.

Midwestern power plants burning high-sulfur coal were seeding the Northeast’s rain with sulfuric acid. It ravaged forests, corroded building facades, and turned 212 Adirondack Mountain lakes into lifeless pickle jars. In September 1983, two months after the Ruston forums, Ruckelshaus proposed a pollution tax that would reduce sulfur emissions by a quarter but cost utilities (i.e., ratepayers) $1.5 billion. When he unveiled the plan at a cabinet meeting, Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, observed that it would cost Midwest ratepayers up to $66,160 per pound of Adirondack trout—a gibe often echoed in today’s backlash against salmon protection. His efforts torpedoed, Ruckelshaus had to defend the familiar official line: More research was needed before any action could be taken.

On November 28, 1984, eighteen months after he took the job and three weeks after Reagan’s reelection, Ruckelshaus resigned. The New York Times noted that his second EPA term “defused the environment as an issue in the recent election campaign. A number of critics have contended that was the only reason Mr. Ruckelshaus was brought back to Washington.”

Ruckelshaus returned to Seattle, and to the better paid, less contentious corporate life. Fast-forward 24 years, however, and critics here are again calling him a hero for hire. Some suggest Gregoire has dusted him off and hitched her campaign to his legend in hopes of squeaking past Dino Rossi on November 4.

David Ortman, an environmental lawyer who founded and for many years directed the Friends of the Earth’s Northwest chapter, is unimpressed: “Ruckelshaus is seen as a hero for his work with the Nixon administration, for ‘saving’ the EPA under Reagan. But if you lift up the covers and say, ‘Well, what has the guy been doing?’ He’s been on a lot of prestigious panels, but has he really accomplished anything? I have this concern that people are being hoodwinked into thinking that things are being taken care of when really it’s the same old same old.”

Ruckelshaus bristles at the suggestion that he’s being used for his weighty name, or that he’s in bed with big business. “One of the central problems we have in this country today is an erosion of trust in the government, and David Ortman epitomizes that…. If people don’t trust the government, giving them edicts will just make them even angrier. In my view, you need to go the other way. You need to open it up…to set up processes where people can come together and work through their differences. When that happens, it’s almost like magic.”
If anyone can work that magic on the Sound, says Bullitt Foundation director Denis Hayes, it’s Ruckelshaus, “who’s probably more committed to Puget Sound and the region’s fisheries than anyone else with his local prominence in government.” Hayes believes Gregoire is also serious: “Puget Sound is one of the priorities she wants to be judged by and leave as her legacy.” In July, Gregoire chartered a motorboat and took her campaign out onto the Sound for two full days, touting the partnership and the Ruckelshaus brand to crowds gathered dockside from Tacoma to Port Angeles, and tying the effort to her own reelection: “I can’t clean up the Sound in four years. I probably can’t do it in eight years, but I know what I can do with one more term!”

And what she can do with the magic of Mr. Clean—a rare figure in these times, what Hayes calls “a Republican environmental hero.” But Ruckelshaus’s lifelong Republican loyalties have been strained. He stuck by the party through the painful Bush years and backed Rossi in 2004. But this year he’s endorsed Barack Obama, though he couldn’t quite bring himself to join Jill in caucusing for him. He’s given $3,200 to Gregoire’s campaign and nothing to Rossi’s; an “Obama” baseball cap sat atop a chair in his office. “The things that attracted me to the Republican party no longer seem to be the things they still embrace,” he says. “Freedom isn’t the absence of restraints. It’s a system of restraints that provides the sideboards on which society can function. It’s within this system that freedom will reach its greatest flower.”

But what happens to the Puget Sound Partnership if Rossi—backed by a developers’ lobby that has opposed both salmon-protecting regulations and the formation of the partnership itself—takes the governor’s mansion? In August, P-I columnist Joel Connelly reported that, when asked if he would maintain the partnership, Rossi replied: “This is my campaign. I’ll talk about the issues I want to.”

“If Dino Rossi is elected governor, there’s a very good chance that this whole thing could roll away,” says Hayes. “On the other hand, Ruckelshaus would have more access to him than anybody else you might be able to put into it. Maybe even then it would work out.”

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Over the past three decades, five governors have attempted to save Puget Sound. In 1983, John Spellman created the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, which in 1996 begat the Puget Sound Action Team, which in 2007 begat the Puget Sound Partnership. Like those previous iterations, the partnership is a quasi-government/private enterprise that’s been asked to study the problem and recommend a solution. It has a leadership council—essentially a board of directors—that includes such luminaries as the colorful and outspoken Nisqually tribal elder Billy Frank Jr. and, of course, chairman Ruckelshaus. Its executive director, David Dicks, happens to be the son of Congressman Norm Dicks, who as chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee has a huge say in how and what the government spends on the environment.

Beltway clout aside, the Puget Sound Partnership wields little, if any, actual power. It has no stick, or even carrot, to compel business or government or citizens to do anything it recommends. It’s a think tank, a blue-ribbon panel. And, says renowned Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, everybody knows such panels are what politicians create to bury issues while pretending to do something.

“The upshot is, nothing ever seems to happen,” says Ebbesmeyer, who served on an international task force convened by Governor Booth Gardner and his British Columbian counterpart in 1992, and did the same thing all over again for Governor Mike Lowry in 1996. “It’s the same debate, but there’s a different political reason for doing it. Science seems to march along and figure out things, but the political system doesn’t seem to evolve. We need some blend of science and politics that can actually deal with these things.”

That’s just what Ruckelshaus is trying to create with the Puget Sound Partnership. But nobody’s planning a Sound Day. No galvanizing, 1970-style grassroots movement is pushing Gregoire. The public isn’t even convinced there’s a problem. Sure, chinook salmon and orcas are endangered, and Hood Canal lingcod are being suffocated by septic-tank-and-fertilizer-fed algae blooms, but the Sound looks as idyllic to most Washingtonians as it does from Ruckelshaus’s 37th-floor window. When the Puget Sound Partnership polled Seattleites earlier this year, 97 percent said they had an obligation to pass along a healthy Puget Sound. But only 28 percent rated its current condition as anything other than “excellent.”

In the 1970s the public had no problem with government forcing industry to clean up. But what happens when the partnership announces that this time around it’s not industry but the rest of us who are responsible for this mess? Back then, Ruckelshaus explains, factory wastes and other “point-source pollution” were 85 percent of the problem, and measures like smokestack scrubbers could fix them. Non-point-source pollution, the “death by a thousand cuts” inflicted by the general population, was far more elusive but just 15 percent of the total.

Now the situation’s reversed: Non-point-source pollution represents some 85 percent. No permits regulate the pharmaceuticals and Ty-D-Bol that 3.26 million of us flush down our toilets, the fertilizers and pesticides we douse our lawns with, or the brake fluid and crankcase oil that leak from our cars, not to mention the endless rain of microscopic carbon particles from tires and tailpipes. Add the 1.5 million newcomers projected by 2020, when the partnership is supposed to declare the Sound restored and, yes, we’ve got an environmental catastrophe on our hands. Every day, each of us drawn by that jaw-dropping vista contributes to the Sound’s demise. We’re not just embracing the Sound. We’re strangling it.

David Ortman fears that such sweeping assignments of blame will let the businesses that are still the largest individual polluters off the hook: “All of a sudden it’s not business that’s the problem, it’s you and me and mom and pop in the old folks’ home who are killing off the fish and the orcas. It’s a bit of a magician’s trick—‘Hey, look here!’ But where is the magician going with all of this?”

The magician is still puzzling that out. “This kind of problem will be central in the century we’re now in,” says Ruckelshaus. “How do people live in ecosystems, how do they live there and not destroy the living things upon which we all depend? It was relatively easy to bring industry under social control because it was very vulnerable…. But if you try to do that with everybody else, it’s very hard.”

So we’re all environmental hypocrites. But Ruckelshaus is too polite to phrase it that way; he calls us “ideological liberals and operational conservatives.” For example: “If you ask people if they think the Clean Air Act should be more stringently enforced, the majority will say yes. If you then ask these same people if they’d be willing to spend 20 minutes every two years getting their cars tuned so their vehicles meet emissions standards, they’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what I had in mind.’

“Fixing ecosystems means changing the social conditions under which people live.” And change doesn’t come easily. Gas prices doubled, “and people still aren’t getting out of our their cars.”

Is the task impossible? The word seems missing from Ruckelshaus’s vocabulary. “I’m naturally an optimistic person. The alternative—that we 
can’t cope with these kinds of problems—is just not acceptable.”

But, says his old EPA buddy Ed Furia, that unbridled optimism is Ruck’s critical flaw: “Bill is a conciliator. He is the good cop. I don’t think he likes being the bad cop. His idea is that people will inherently do the right thing. Please…. There are selfish people, greedy people who really don’t give a damn whether salmon survive or the Sound is clean and healthy. The only way a conciliator is able to get anything done is if there’s somebody standing behind him with a club.”

On a brilliant June morning, the visitor center at Lewis Creek Park, a nature preserve in Bellevue, is afire with yellow wildflowers and buzzing with caffeinated chatter. Five tiers of chairs face an L-shaped bank of tables, where the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council will convene once its leader arrives. Three dozen fleecy, dressed-down bureaucrats and activists drain the Starbucks sitting on a side table piled high with eco-lit.
It’s the sort of crowd you’d expect at a two-day series of PowerPoint presentations with titles like “Accountability and Adaptive Management: Status and Next Steps.” People like Paul Sparks, a white-bearded hippie in black jeans, gray hoodie, and geeky snap-together eyeglasses. Sparks, the vice president for conservation of the Washington Council of Trout Unlimited, has come for two things: to get an update on the plan for salmonids and to draw inspiration from Bill Ruckelshaus.

“He’s one of my heroes,” gushes Sparks.

A sleek black Volkswagen Phaeton glides in among the smaller Priuses, and out steps Ruckelshaus. He works the room, shaking hands and cracking jokes, until he reaches the microphone. When he clasps his hands together the crowd falls silent.

On the cinderblock walls hang framed wildlife posters: a blue heron with the
banner “Wetlands,” Mount Rainier labeled “Washington Forests,” a beaver and duck beneath “Streams.” A bearskin near Ruck’s feet stares glass-eyed at the audience.

At that moment, the hope is almost palpable: that this guy, this hero Ruckelshaus, has all the answers. That this time, things will be different.
As he steels himself to speak, you can see it in his eyes, obscured behind thick lenses and the wisdom of all those years. It’s the prospect of redemption. The chance that Mr. Clean will finally meet everyone’s expectations. And, by saving the Sound, find salvation himself.

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