EPA Regional Chief Al Armendariz Steps Down In Wake of "Crucify" Comment

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Before SMU prof Al Armendariz had even warmed the seat at his post as EPA regional chief, he was pilloried as an activist whose research into the air pollution caused by fracking operations made him unfit to run a five-state office overseeing some of the industry's most important drilling grounds.

He was appointed by President Obama at the end of 2009, several years into a shale gas play that had already re-drawn the energy map in this country -- and whose development had gone virtually unchecked and unstudied. And as Republican presidential candidates vowed to put the EPA on its budgetary chopping block, the agency and Armendariz in particular found a cluster of targets on their backs.

His profile, he now says, has become a "distraction" from the EPA's mission. Earlier today he resigned.

As chronicled in this week's cover story, "Fire in the Hole," his office last month withdrew an endangerment order accusing natural gas producer Range Resources of contaminating a water well in rural Parker County. It was the first order of its kind in Texas, and its withdrawal was seen by his critics as a tacit admission that the agency had overreached, even though it came with an agreement that Range would conduct drinking water testing in the area for another year.

Then, last week, a 2010 video surfaced in which Armendariz recounted a parable told to his enforcement staff. Because his office was understaffed, he said it was necessary to make examples of bad actors as a deterrent -- to "crucify" them like the Romans did, preemptively quelling an uprising or, in this case, encouraging good behavior in the vast fracking industry.

It turned out to be the final dustup, according to the Dallas Morning News. "I had become too much of a distraction," he wrote in a letter to his supporters, "and no one person is more important than the incredible work being done by the rest of the team at EPA."

His resignation came, apparently, with no pressure from either EPA administrator Lisa Jackson or the White House. The decision, he writes, was his own.

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