/Colorado mine’s ties to Interior secretary unsettle tourist town

Colorado mine’s ties to Interior secretary unsettle tourist town

David Bernhardt

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt promised nearly two years ago to recuse himself from decisions involving his former firm’s clients. But that ethics pledge expires in August. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

The Mid-Continent quarry has sat for decades in the hills of western Colorado, where kayakers paddle the Roaring Fork River and tourists soak in the natural hot springs. But now a proposed expansion of the 16-acre limestone mine has kicked off a battle that stretches to the office of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose former employer is lobbying for the project.

The mine’s owner, Rocky Mountain Resources, is led by CEO Chad Brownstein, whose father chairs the major lobbying firm where Bernhardt worked for a decade. Bernhardt’s old firm is pushing the mining proposal on two fronts, according to interviews and POLITICO’s review of public records — pressing local government leaders to endorse the project, while meeting in D.C. with Interior staff who could decide the expansion’s fate.

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Bernhardt promised nearly two years ago to recuse himself from decisions involving his former firm’s clients. But that ethics pledge expires in August, freeing him to work on those issues. An Interior spokesperson would only refer to that pledge when asked whether he’d recused himself from the mine’s proposal, and declined to say what action he may take when the pledge expires.

The hilltop mine leases land owned by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.

The mine’s array of powerful allies is inspiring deep unease among leaders in Glenwood Springs, a community of 10,000 people whose outdoor tourist attractions include hot springs, whitewater rafting, fly fishing and scenic mountain trails. Residents worry that the expansion, which would allow the mine to spread across 440 acres, would bring a surge of truck traffic, dust and noise — as well as the scarring on the mountain ridge that would become visible from the town. And they say the mine is already violating its permits.

The dispute also follows months of questions from House Democrats and Interior’s internal watchdog about whether the department is taking actions that benefit Bernhardt’s former employer, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

“We’re acutely aware of Chad Brownstein and the relationship to David Bernhardt,” said Jeff Peterson, executive director of Glenwood Springs Citizens Alliance, a group formed to oppose the mine expansion. “It’s something unfortunately we can’t control. But there’s a real concern that this will get essentially rubber stamped and it doesn’t matter what it will do to our community.”

Glenwood Springs Mayor Jonathan Godes agreed.

“Our concern is that there is going to be one of the largest mines in Colorado directly abutting our city,” Godes said. “And when you have a former lobbyist for one of the largest legal lobbying firms in the extractive industry running DOI … and Norm Brownstein the father of the CEO of Rocky Mountain Resources, it doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to say something ain’t right here.”

Just the sheer lobbying firepower Rocky Mountain Resources is bringing to the project may be enough to pressure Interior employees, said Daniel Stevens, executive director at the watchdog group Campaign for Accountability.

Brownstein Hyatt “has a lot of pull, and when it asks Interior to jump, Interior jumps,” Daniels said. “Does every other small firm applying for a mining permit run to the top lobbying firm in the country to work on their behalf? Seems a little disproportionate here.”

RMR defended its corporate track record and its project, but the company and its executives did not respond to detailed questions about its lobbying efforts and ties to Bernhardt. Jon Hrobsky, one of the Brownstein lobbyists working on behalf of RMR, has known Bernhardt since they were both staffers for former Republican Colorado Rep. Scott McInnis and worked with him at Interior during the George W. Bush administration. Hrobsky and another Brownstein lobbyist, Luke Johnson, have both met with Interior officials to discuss “natural resources” on behalf of the company, according to the disclosure forms.

The Brownstein firm registered as lobbying for RMR as of April 30, according to its disclosure form. But two of its employees, Michael Stratton and Christine Jochim, have been assisting RMR since at least February, according to emails POLITICO received via public information requests. On April 5, Stratton sent a message to Glenwood Springs City Manager Debra Figueroa saying he was “hoping to make progress on behalf of RMR relative to making a presentation about their quarry proposal,” according to one of the emails.

Stratton and Jochim provided legal work for RMR but did not lobby before April 30, a Brownstein spokesperson said.

When asked if Bernhardt had recused himself from the matter, an Interior spokesperson referred to his ethics pledge.

Bernhardt also has personal ties to the area: He grew up in Rifle, Colo., about a half-an-hour drive from Glenwood Springs.

The mine has been in operation since 1982. Glenwood Springs residents who have spoken up at county board meetings overwhelmingly opposed the expansion and said the noise, traffic and sheer size of the project would all but destroy their tourism-based economy.

Garfield County inspectors earlier this year found a range of violations at the mine: It has spread outside its currently permitted acreage, is selling products it wasn’t permitted to and is operating during months it had promised the county it would shut down, the inspectors wrote in a report.

In interviews, residents said the BLM’s office has refused to respond to their complaints, forcing them to turn to the agency’s D.C. headquarters. But the bureau has allowed the mine to keep operating despite its violations.

“We issued a letter [to BLM] saying we don’t think RMR is compliance,” Peterson said. “We’ve heard absolutely nothing from the BLM. It’s been crickets on that front.”

RMR, a holding company based in Beverly Hills, Calif., acquired the Mid-Continent mine in October 2016. CEO Chad Brownstein’s father is Norm Brownstein, who founded and still chairs Brownstein Hyatt, where Bernhardt spent most of his professional life.

The fight between the company and the community reached a new level of antipathy in May, when RMR sued the county board and its members. The lawsuit contends that the county agreement the board is trying to enforce should take a back seat to the company’s permit from BLM.

Records indicate that board members have reached out to Bernhardt directly: They called him on Sept. 17 and met with him in his D.C. office on March 5, according to Bernhardt’s official schedules. Neither of those conversations involved the Mid-Continent mine issue, according to an Interior spokesperson and others who attended the meeting, although an initial meeting request form said the commissioners had asked to speak to Bernhardt about topics including BLM.

The board members are unable to speak about the matter, a county spokesperson said after POLITICO tried to ask them questions about the mining permit. But a month after meeting with Bernhardt, the board heard county inspectors list the mine’s violations and gave Rocky Mountain Resources until June 1 to comply.

Bernhardt has already come under fire for making policy decisions that could benefit Brownstein clients. Interior’s inspector general is reviewing Bernhardt’s role in blocking a department report analyzing how a controversial pesticide affected federally protected wildlife, and examining whether he improperly pushed to remove a species of small fish from the endangered species list to benefit a former client.

The House Committee On Oversight and Reform and the National Archives and Records Administration are also probing whether Bernhardt is suppressing the release of his meeting schedules.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said Bernhardt should allay these concerns by continuing to recuse himself from matters involving his former firm even after his ethics pledge ends in two months.

“Unfortunately, as we have seen over and over again with Bernhardt, the conflicts of interest are so widespread that they keep popping up and Bernhardt seems unable to divorce himself effectively from his former clients and employers,” Holman said.

The Brownstein firm has been actively working on the ground in Colorado to promote the project. Stratton, one of the Brownstein lobbyists, has advised Chad Brownstein on the mine since RMR acquired it in 2016, an RMR spokesperson said. He attended at least one Monday night county board hearing and has met with city officials seeking to persuade them that expanding the mine is in the community’s interests, according to interviews and documents obtained by POLITICO.

“Mike Stratton has advised Chad Brownstein for over two decades on corporate matters,” the spokesperson said. “Mike and Chad have equal to that a close personal friendship since Chad was 21.”

He has also participated in meetings and conference calls in which BLM discussed the limestone mine with RMR, said David Boyd, a spokesperson for the bureaus Northwest Colorado District. Boyd said he was “not aware” whether Chad Brownstein was involved in any of the discussions.

Stratton also represents the American Petroleum Association, the country’s largest petroleum trade association.

The other Brownstein lawyer, Jochim, has worked on the mine proposal since at least February, according to emails POLITICO obtained. Jochim, a former Nuclear Regulatory Commission attorney and former Justice Department law clerk, requested in April that the city hand over all communications pertaining to the mine, according to documents POLITICO obtained through Colorado public record access laws.

Stratton declined to answer questions, saying he was not the company spokesperson. Jochim did not respond to questions.

A Rocky Mountain Resources spokesperson did not answer questions about whether Chad Brownstein or anyone in his father’s lobbying firm has discussed the project with either Bernhardt or other senior Interior staff. Company executives declined requests for an interview.

Residents and city officials said they don’t recall having any complaints about the mine before RMR bought it. The site has become the focus of numerous complaints since the new owner took over, however.

The mine’s operations have crept well outside the 16 acres originally stipulated in its county agreement and BLM permit, according to a March memo by Garfield County inspectors. Inspectors also found that RMR had not been paying royalties to the bureau for all the materials it had been extracting and selling from the mine.

Residents also complained that RMR was operating the mine year-round, violating its agreement with the county to shut operations every December to April to minimize harm to wildlife.

David McConaughy, a Glenwood Springs attorney representing the company, told the county board at its April public meeting that BLM has approved RMR’s requests for exemptions to the seasonal shutdowns since 2016. But neither BLM nor the company alerted the county at the time, board members responded.

“We’re trying to be transparent with the county … to reconcile conflicts in the various permits,” McConaughy said at the hearing.

McConaughy declined to speak to POLITICO, referring questions to RMR.

BLM returned Rocky Mountain Resources’ March expansion proposal to the company within the required 30-day review period, saying the plan didn’t contain enough information. The local BLM office is “currently determining how to address the existing mining operations as well as any future proposal,” the bureau’s Boyd said.

“As would typically be the case for controversial topics in a field office, the BLM Washington Office and DOI have been briefed on the potential expansion proposal for the Mid-Continent Quarry,” Boyd added.

A Rocky Mountain Resources spokesperson defended the company’s record, saying the violations of the county agreement stemmed from problems inherited from the previous owner. The company also said the expansion would diversify the economy of a town that depends on tourists arriving to hike and ski the nearby mountains.

“Currently, many Glenwood Springs’ employers are unable or unwilling to provide their employees adequate wages to afford the town’s high cost of living, including affordable housing for teachers and developing professionals,” the company said in a statement to POLITICO. “RMR believes a community should embrace opportunities to improve the lives of its constituents, not just those who can afford to influence local politics.”

Residents who spoke to POLITICO said RMR’s economic arguments ring hollow.

Besides expanding the mining pit area, RMR also proposed increasing truck traffic from around 20 round trips a day to as many as 450, according to a proposal it submitted to the BLM in March. The dramatic increase in traffic — plus the sight of the expanded mine in the hills above the town — would all but cripple Glenwood Springs’ tourist economy, said former Mayor Michael Gamba, a Republican civil engineer.

“We had lived harmoniously with that mine for the past 20-plus years,” Gamba said in an interview. “Had nothing changed, we would have had no objections to them having it. But the proposed expansion is an existential threat to our community.”

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