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Rocket (Fuel) Man

In the Senate, Richard Bryan worked to safeguard Nevada's water supply. Then he became a lobbyist for the chemical firms that contaminated it.

| Fri Feb. 13, 2009 9:00 AM EST

In the Senate, Bryan, a bespectacled fellow with thinning hair and a moderately liberal voting record, earned the reputation as something of a consumer advocate who cared about environmental matters—especially one. He was a fierce opponent of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in his home state. He pushed for increasing fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles—and lost. He fought for requiring cars to have passenger-side air bags—and won. Bryan helped pass the first Internet privacy legislation. He went after telemarketing fraud and advocated fair credit reporting and toy-labeling legislation. He opposed constructing new logging roads in national forests. No surprise, he was a champion of the gambling industry. He also got into a tussle with Carl Sagan and other scientists when he managed to kill funding for NASA's search for extraterrestrial civilizations. As chair of the ethics committee—having taken the job reluctantly—Bryan led the investigation of Sen. Bob Packwood, who was accused of sexual harassment. Previously, as a member of the committee, he argued for a strong rebuke of Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, who had failed to disclose gifts and travel reimbursements he had received.

He served two terms and, at the age of 63, after nearly 40 years in public service, Bryan quit the Senate and landed at Lionel, Sawyer & Collins. As a lobbyist, he worked his connection with Reid, who was then the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, and even hired Reid's son, Key Reid, to run the firm's Washington office. (Key Reid left Lionel, Sawyer & Collins in 2003, after news stories raised questions about his lobbying activities; at different points, the firm has employed each of Reid's four sons.) In one newspaper interview, Bryan declared that he handled the firm's contacts with Sen. Reid. Bryan's early lobbying clients included Fidelity Investments, BellSouth, and the city of Las Vegas.

What exactly Bryan and Heberlee have done for the perchlorate manufacturers is not a matter of public record. The lobbying disclosure forms the two must fill out don't require them to detail their efforts. For instance, they don't have to reveal whom they've approached on Capitol Hill or at the EPA. But this is a good example of how Washington operates: A senator who had been in charge of policing Senate ethics and who once boasted of winning federal money for a project to clean up perchlorate leaves office and then works behind the scenes for perchlorate dumpers, refusing to talk about it. (Heberlee would not discuss his work for perchlorate firms, either.) Says Launce Rake, communications director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, "It is very disappointing that a former governor and senator would be lobbying for perchlorate manufacturers."

The best lobbyists in Washington affect the workings of government with hidden hands. Even staffers in both Sen. Boxer's office and Rep. Solis' office are unaware of what took place behind the scenes, though they heard that lobbyists for the perchlorate manufacturers were trying to gin up opposition to their bills. "The rocket-fuel companies have their lobbyists," says the congressional aide who follows the subject. "They are working with the DOD against the EPA moving forward, and they go around to the more conservative members of Congress." (Sen. Reid's office declined to say whether Bryan ever contacted his old friend to discuss the perchlorate matter.)

In 2008, someone in the Senate did the perchlorate makers and the Pentagon a big favor. After the Senate environmental committee, which Boxer chairs, approved her bill in July—over Republican objections—an unidentified member of the Senate placed a hold on it, blocking it from coming to a vote. (Anonymous holds are permissible under Senate rules.) With the Senate bill stalled, the House energy and commerce committee didn't bother to move ahead with Solis' legislation.

Meanwhile, in October, the EPA issued a preliminary decision not to regulate perchlorate—over the objections of the agency's own scientists. In an unusual move, an EPA advisory board on children's health issues posted a letter of protest on the EPA's website. "This decision," the letter said, "does not recognize the science which supports the exquisite sensitivity of the developing brain to even small drops in thyroid hormone levels" that could be caused by perchlorate. At risk, these scientists noted, were "millions of pregnant women and their fetuses, and lactating women and infants across the country." The EPA's Science Advisory Board also pushed back [PDF]. Noting perchlorate's "wide occurrence and well-documented toxicity to humans," this group of scientists contended that the agency had acted hastily and had not developed a sound basis for giving the chemical a pass. Environmentalists, too, cried foul, with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit outfit, charging that the EPA had relied on research conducted by a firm funded by the chemical industry and had ignored a recent Centers for Disease Control study showing that millions of women were at risk of potentially dangerous perchlorate exposure.

The perchlorate makers and their lobbyists had prevailed. But with the election of Barack Obama, the perchlorate debate is not over. Environmentalists and scientists championing regulation are likely to get another shot. In 2008, months before Obama tapped her to be his EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson, as head of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, backed a five parts per billion standard. And in November, she met with EPA senior staff and questioned them about the agency's actions on perchlorate. "We were delighted," says Anila Jacob, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. "We expect perchlorate to be a priority." But that isn't necessarily bad news for Bryan and other perchlorate lobbyists. It will mean more wrangling—and more lucrative work for them.

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