Canton Repository

July 31, 2001

Report may change role of EPA ombudsman

By Paul Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have delayed release of a long-awaited report that could provide support for strengthening an internal watchdog office that scrutinizes toxic waste cleanup decisions at the Environmental Protection Agency.

An earlier draft of the General Accounting Office study recommended strengthening the EPA’s national ombudsman office after comparing it to other ombudsmen in federal agencies, said a source who read the draft. The draft said the EPA ombudsman, currently Bob Martin, does not have enough independence to do his job properly.

It also suggested Martin should report directly to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman or her deputy rather than to lower-ranking officials as he does now. And it said he should be allowed to hire and fire his own staff and control his office’s resources, according to the source.

The study, completed Friday, is almost certain to influence the debate over the revamping of the ombudsman office, which serves as a link between the public and the EPA.

Responding to Martin’s complaints that agency-proposed rule changes would diminish his independence and credibility, several lawmakers have introduced legislation to provide the ombudsman with more authority and resources in his review of cleanup plans and decisions at the request of Congress and the public.

The draft of the report also concluded that 10 regional ombudsmen who work for the EPA serve as facilitators, not as genuine ombudsmen empowered to conduct in-depth reviews of the actions of government agencies, the source said.

Reps. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., who requested the study last fall, and Paul Gillmor, R-Ohio, asked the General Accounting Office not to publicly release the 35-page report for up to 30 days.

Neither Bilirakis nor Gillmor had seen the report Monday, said Gillmor spokesman A. Bailey Wood.

“They’d like to see it before the rest of the world does,” Wood said. “They don’t know what is in it.”

Bilirakis is an advocate for strengthening the ombudsman office.

Earlier this year, Martin complained that cutbacks in his staff forced him to curtail several investigations at toxic waste sites across the nation, including the Industrial Excess Landfill, a Superfund site in Lake Township.

Whitman suspended consideration of the EPA-proposed changes in the ombudsman office in April pending the release of the General Accounting Office report.

Unlike Bilirakis, Gillmor was not involved in requesting the study. Earlier this year, he became chairman of an Energy and Commerce Committee panel with jurisdiction over the environment and hazardous materials.

Unless the lawmakers lift the hold early, it will expire in late August while Congress is in recess. Congress is set to adjourn Saturday and return Sept. 4. The lawmakers could ask for a brief extension of the hold before it expires if they are planning a hearing, a General Accounting Office spokeswoman said.

Lawmakers who request studies from the General Accounting Office often delay their release to give themselves time to review the findings, or to keep the reports from becoming public until they use them in a public hearing.

Christy Stefadouros, spokeswoman for Bilirakis, said Gillmor “has committed to holding a hearing on this.”

But Wood would say only, “At this point, nothing has been officially scheduled.”