By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's national watchdog, who helped change the debate about cleanup plans for the Stauffer Superfund site, should be allowed to operate more independently, according to a new report from the U.S. General Accounting Office.
The report, prepared at the request of U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, recommends that EPA ombudsman Bob Martin be freed to control his own budget and hire and fire his own staff. It also suggests the office is underfunded and understaffed.
The 35-page GAO report concludes that an ombudsman must have "both actual and apparent independence from any person who may be the subject of a complaint or inquiry."
Yet, the report states, the EPA's national ombudsman's office is controlled by the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, the very agency that Martin's investigations often involve.
"EPA's national ombudsman is not independent of the organizational unit whose decisions he is responsible for investigating," the report states. "Moreover, this lack of independence raises questions about the ombudsman's impartiality and hence his ability to conduct a credible investigation."
In January, Martin put all of his investigations, including the one into Stauffer, on hold because of the reassignment of his chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman, and the pending implementation of new guidelines that Martin warned would strip the office of its independence and cripple its ability to perform meaningful work.
Kaufman contended EPA officials clamped down on his office because it revealed embarrassing flaws in cleanup plans at several Superfund sites around the country.
From 1947 to 1981, the Stauffer Chemical plant processed phosphate in a huge kiln to produce elemental phosphorus. The EPA put the 130-acre site on its Superfund cleanup list in 1994.
Bilirakis and other elected officials in regions with Superfund sites came to Martin's aid. In April, Bilirakis introduced a bill to create a more independent role for the ombudsman's office and dramatically increase its budget. That bill now sits in committee.
Bilirakis and many area residents credit Martin and Kaufman with uncovering shortcomings in the EPA's proposed mound-and-cap cleanup plan for Stauffer, including EPA assumptions about whether a mound might trigger a sinkhole and dump contaminants into the drinking water supply.
In the midst of the ombudsman's scrutiny, the EPA last fall withdrew its cleanup plan until several tests -- including one for the propensity for sinkholes -- are performed.
But Martin's investigation at the Stauffer site was put on hold for months in the midst of his internal struggles with his own agency.
The report was scheduled to be discussed today in a hearing before the House subcommittee on the Environment and Hazardous Waste, but the hearing was postponed in the wake of Tuesday's terrorist attacks. A new date has not yet been set.
Bilirakis' spokeswoman Christy Stefadouros said the GAO report validates concerns Bilirakis and numerous residents have raised about EPA management trying to control Martin's agenda. It also adds credence to Bilirakis' proposed ombudsman legislation.
"I think this report is a small victory for community residents and for what Congressman Bilirakis has been saying in letters and statements," Stefadouros said.
Martin could not be reached for comment, but Kaufman said the report was welcome news.
"I'm hopeful that now that he GAO has added its voice to the choir that (EPA administrator Christie Todd) Whitman will exercise the necessary leadership to let the ombudsman function as it's supposed to function," Kaufman said.
Whitman's press office did not return a telephone call Thursday.
The GAO report also states there is some evidence that funding for the ombudsman's office has not kept pace with Martin's increased workload.
Martin has told the GAO he is compiling at least 50 boxes and filing cabinets of records to support his request to more than double his current budget to $2-million per year and hire 12 full-time employees. Martin operated most of last year with just one full-time employee, Kaufman, and a small team of interns.
Michael H. Shapiro, the EPA's acting assistant administrator, could not be reached for comment, but in a letter responding to the report, he states that the organizational placement of the ombudsman's office will be assessed over the coming months and "we will seriously consider these conclusions and recommendations."
Meanwhile, Bilirakis has invited Martin to return to Tarpon Springs City Hall from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Sept. 28 to update the community on the work plan, the ombudsman's ongoing investigation and the GAO report. Residents also can ask questions. EPA officials are expected to attend.
- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.