EPA, critics clash over credibility at hearing
By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
A congressional hearing in Washington on Tuesday produced two starkly different pictures of how federal officials respond to citizen complaints about cleanup plans for the Stauffer Chemical property near Tarpon Springs and other Superfund sites nationwide.
The first picture came from two high-ranking officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We do not intend to become advocates for individuals or for groups," said Mark Bialek, a lawyer for the EPA's inspector general's office.
The recently reconfigured ombudsman's office would review complaints "in an impartial and objective manner" and issue reports to Congress and the EPA with recommendations "that are designed to solve problems," he said.
Not likely, said critics, who included Tarpon Springs activist Heather Malinowski.
Testifying before two subcommittees of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Malinowski told lawmakers that a recent EPA decision to transfer the ombudsman's office has ruined what little credibility the agency had left.
"At this point, the people in this community have no faith in this agency," said Malinowski, secretary of the Pinellas-Pasco Technical Assistance Group, locally known as Pi-Pa-TAG. "We do not believe they will do the right thing."
In seven years of working on the Stauffer cleanup, "EPA has talked at us, not to us," Malinowski said. "I want it cleaned up properly. However, I don't want to have to spend more time dealing with an agency that has no intention of really responding to us."
U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, who chaired the 21/2-hour hearing, said Malinowski and other residents have valid concerns about the ombudsman now.
This spring, EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman decided to transfer the EPA ombudsman under the agency's inspector general. Rather than accept the transfer, then-ombudsman Bob Martin resigned in protest.
Like senators who criticized the EPA during a similar June 25 hearing, several representatives at the hearing said Tuesday that the EPA's transfer of the ombudsman's office smacks of political retaliation.
"I'm concerned, like many others, that the administration has sought to marginalize the ombudsman because the ombudsman has done too good a job pointing up (EPA) shortcomings," Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told EPA officials.
The EPA's transfer of its ombudsman also came in for criticism from the director of environmental issues for the U.S. General Accounting Office, which last year urged the agency to give the ombudsman more independence.
"Prior to the reorganization, the national ombudsman could independently determine which cases to pursue," the GAO's John B. Stephenson said inwritten testimony. Now, "however, according to EPA, the Inspector General has the overall responsibility for the work performed by the office, and no single staff member -- including the national ombudsman -- has the authority to select and prioritize his or her own caseload independent of all other needs."
Moreover, Stephenson said, the new ombudsman lacks control of the office's budget and staff.
"If EPA intends to have an ombudsman function that is consistent with the way the position is typically defined in the ombudsman community, placing the national ombudsman within the (Office of the Inspector General) does not achieve that objective," Stephenson said.
In Tarpon Springs, Martin played a critical role two years ago in persuading the EPA to reconsider its cleanup plan for the 130-acre Stauffer site. A phosphorus-processing plant that operated on the site for more than 30 years left behind hazardous waste that included arsenic, antimony, beryllium, thallium, elemental phosphorus, radium-226, radon and carcinogenic polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
The EPA originally proposed mixing the waste at Stauffer with cement and sand to solidify it, then covering that with a watertight cap to prevent rain from trickling through the tainted soil and washing toxic chemicals into the groundwater.
But after Martin questioned the EPA's assumptions, the agency agreed to wait until studies are done to determine whether the recommended cleanup plan could cause a sinkhole that would draw contamination into the aquifer.
Martin told the committee Tuesday that he has offered to enter in mediation to return to his old job and finish his work on Stauffer and several other sites but has received no response.
His job, he said, "has been dissolved."
"The critical independence of the ombudsman was removed entirely," Martin said. "Just to say, "Hey, I think we've got a problem here' -- that's very important in a bureaucracy. That's very important in government to be able to say that publicly."
Bilirakis has sponsored legislation to create an independent ombudsman within the EPA with a budget appropriated directly by Congress and independent authority to choose which investigations it does and what staff members it hires. Those are not features of the office under the EPA inspector general.
But that legislation could take a long time to pass, if it passes at all, he noted. In the meantime, Bilirakis wondered whether it just wouldn't make more sense to bring Martin back to finish out his work on Stauffer and his other main cases.
"Why should the gap take place when we've got people who are experienced and involved?" Bilirakis said. "Let them finish their work. Any way you look at it, it will be the easiest way to go."
-- Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or Danielson@sptimes.com.
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