Transfer of EPA investigator annoys residents, lawmaker
By ROBERT FARLEY
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000
TARPON SPRINGS -- Local opponents of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plans for cleaning up the Stauffer Superfund site are riled that the EPA has reassigned Hugh Kaufman, the outspoken investigator for the agency's ombudsman's office.
Many in the community credit Kaufman and EPA Ombudsman Bob Martin with uncovering shortcomings in the controversial cleanup plan at Stauffer, leading the EPA to take the unusual step last fall of withdrawing its cleanup plan until several tests were done. The 130-acre Stauffer property on the Anclote River, near the Pinellas-Pasco border, was once a phosphorus processing plant.
Some said they view Kaufman's transfer last Thursday as meddling with the independence of the ombudsman's office, which acts as a watchdog within the EPA. The ombudsman's office has swayed several EPA cleanup decisions around the country during the past few years.
"I think it's deplorable," Mary Mosley of Tarpon Springs said Monday. "The EPA is trying to suppress the truth and benefit the polluters. They are trying to take all of Martin's staff away, particularly his big gun, to render him unable to do what he needs to do."
Many residents following the Stauffer debate know Kaufman as the mouthpiece of the ombudsman's office, willing to grill EPA officials aggressively.
Not surprisingly, that style has chafed EPA brass.
Tim Fields, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said the decision to reassign Kaufman was based on a pattern of activity during the past two years. He declined to discuss specifics, saying it was an "internal personnel matter."
"The merits very clearly point to a need to make a change," Fields said.
In response, the Pinellas-Pasco Technical Advisory Group, also known as Pi-Pa-TAG, has weighed in with a letter to U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs.
Kaufman "has played a major role in eliciting the needed information to ensure that this hazardous waste site in our community is properly investigated. His removal from that position can only serve to weaken the EPA National Ombudsman Office, if not actually cripple it in this particular case," Pi-Pa-TAG secretary Heather Malinowski wrote. "We believe that his continued involvement is urgent."
Bilirakis is making an appeal on Kaufman's behalf by writing a letter to President-elect George W. Bush, urging him to retain Kaufman.
"Since the (ombudsman's) office basically consists of two senior officials (Martin and Kaufman) plus support staff, this action substantially reduces the ability of the National Ombudsman to function at a time when caseloads have increased dramatically because of congressional requests," Bilirakis wrote in a letter Friday.
In June, Kaufman found himself under fire from several EPA officials after he read a Miranda warning to an EPA attorney during an ombudsman's hearing in Tarpon Springs. He also chastised EPA leaders for failing to show up at the hearing, saying they instead decided to "hide behind the skirts of a little black girl just out of law school."
In a letter to the acting deputy administrator, an EPA attorney called the comment an affront to the African-American community and urged Kaufman's removal.
Another EPA official wrote to Martin complaining of "reports of abusive, bullying tactics and the lack of impartiality" at one of the hearings.
Kaufman responded that both charges were baseless and were an attempt to interfere with the ombudsman's investigation.
He said the same of his reassignment.
"It's clear what's really going on," Kaufman said Monday. "Politics."
Kaufman noted the decision was made the day after Vice President Al Gore conceded the presidential election to Bush. Fields' political appointment ends Jan. 20.
"I'm glad it happened," Kaufman said. "It demonstrates to everyone in the outside world how much involvement management has over our so-called independent ombudsman's function."
Martin, who was not consulted about the move, did not return a message left at his office for comment.
- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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