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Ruling a blow to foes of Stauffer plan

The court refuses to block an EPA action that environmentalists fear will silence a key critic of the cleanup plan for the Superfund site.

By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2001


A federal judge on Friday denied a request from Tarpon Springs environmental activist Mary Mosley to block a move she fears will muzzle the most effective critic of the cleanup plan for the Stauffer Chemical Superfund site.

Mosley went to U.S. District Court in Tampa this month seeking an injunction stopping U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman from moving the EPA ombudsman's office. The transfer is scheduled to take effect Jan. 13.

Ombudsman Bob Martin has played a key role in getting the EPA to reconsider its plans for cleaning up the Stauffer Chemical Superfund site.

Mosley contended in her request that the transfer would undermine his office, likely causing her community "irreparable harm." She also urged the court to prevent the EPA from destroying any Stauffer-related files in the transfer.

In an eight-page order, however, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich disagreed.

"The court finds that (Mosley's) argument amounts only to a difference of opinion, and any effect on the environment is pure speculation," Kovachevich concluded.

"While the ombudsman is being moved to another office, the office and ongoing investigations will not disappear without a trace," she added in her ruling. "While there may be pending legislation on this particular subject, it is the role of Congress to carry out that process."

Kovachevich also found that Mosley did not establish any basis for a court order requiring the preservation of documents.

Mosley and her attorney did not know Friday whether they would ask for an emergency appeal.

"We were hoping that we would get it, but nothing comes easy," Mosley said.

They do plan, however, to continue seeking a court order preventing EPA from getting rid of any of Martin's files.

"It's our intention to be there every step of the way monitoring what goes on and making sure that none of the records related to EPA's handling of the Stauffer site in Tarpon Springs are lost or destroyed in the switch-over," said Mosley's attorney, Spiro Verras, a Tarpon Springs native who now practices environmental law in New Orleans.

"Obviously we're disappointed that Judge Kovachevich decided not to enter an order," Verras said. "This is not just a difference of opinion, as the court said, but it is, in fact, an effort by Christie Whitman to silence the only community advocate in her agency."

Whitman's office in Washington did not return a call from the St. Petersburg Times Friday afternoon. A representative of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, which helped handle the case, welcomed the ruling.

"We are pleased with Judge Kovachevich's order and hopefully we can move on," U.S. Attorney's spokesman Steve Cole said.

Mosley credits Martin and his former chief investigator Hugh Kaufman with exposing shortcomings in the EPA's plan to mound up contaminated soil at Stauffer and cover it with an impermeable cap. As a result of Martin's work, that plan was put on hold last year while officials do further studies.

Late last month, Whitman announced a plan to move the Martin's office to the EPA's office of the inspector general.

EPA officials have said the decision came in response to a U.S. General Accounting Office report commissioned by U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs. That report concluded the ombudsman's office lacked sufficient independence and was underfunded and understaffed. The report also found its location in the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response -- the bureaucracy that Martin's investigations often involve -- raised questions of impartiality.

Martin, however, has said the move would prevent him from selecting the cases he wants to investigate and would "as a practical matter, dissolve the national ombudsman function at EPA." Kaufman has contended Whitman's move was retaliation for uncovering flaws in cleanup plans at Stauffer and other Superfund sites.

In her motion for a restraining order, Mosley contended that the ombudsman "is the only official within the EPA who has acted to protect the interests of the local community with respect to the Stauffer Superfund site." Moving him to EPA's Office of the Inspector General, she argued, would be harmful because that office has tried to "hinder and obstruct" his investigations in the past.

In court pleadings, attorneys for the EPA responded that Mosley failed to show how she or anyone else would be hurt by the move.

"There is no record (of) evidence demonstrating that the relocation of the ombudsman . . . will in any way result in a "weakening' of the ombudsman's functions," they argued.

In a sworn statement, an EPA assistant inspector general said that after the move, his office would conduct a review of the ombudsman's workload and cases. He said he would order that no records be destroyed during the review and that any documents discarded later would be eliminated according to federal law.

Mosley said Friday that that affidavit shows that Martin's job "will be taken over" and that records could be destroyed after the review.

She is not alone in her skepticism about the planned transfer.

Bilirakis and 17 other members of Congress have asked Whitman to delay the move until after they hold hearings on legislation to increase the ombudsman's independence. Those hearings are scheduled for early next year.

-- Staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or Danielson@sptimes.com.

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