August 12, 2001
Local EPA reviews could turn regional
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — Several years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency brushed aside objections from residents near a chemical
plant in Denver and decided it was safe to bury radioactive waste under a clay cap.
Bob Martin, the national EPA ombudsman, reviewed the decision and found the cap could begin leaking within five years. As a result,
the EPA agreed to remove the waste.
Under an EPA plan, Martin might not get that chance again. The proposal would shift power over local reviews from the national
ombudsman — who has proven responsive to public challenges of EPA decisions — to 10 regional ombudsmen.
How the regional ombudsmen would handle their duties is uncertain, which has raised anxieties among some lawmakers and
communities with toxic sites.
Under the proposal, the 10 regional ombudsmen would generally handle “matters which fall within the territorial boundaries of the
region,” leaving issues with national implications to Martin.
But are the regional ombudsmen qualified to handle such cases?
They say they are. But critics say they lack the preparation, resources and independence to undertake the kind of complex,
intensive fact-finding missions performed by Martin.
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman has pledged to delay consideration of the proposed changes until after a congressional
study of the ombudsman office is completed later this month.
During his nine years in the job, Martin, an attorney and one-time owner of a toxic waste cleanup firm, has conducted more than two
dozen investigations. The recommendations he drew from those reviews have, in many cases, caused the EPA to reverse its
decisions or modify its plans.
In his work at the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township, Martin had time only to complete a preliminary investigation of the
EPA’s handling of the Superfund site before his staff and budget were cut last year by the agency. He raised several critical
questions, cited “inconsistencies” in the EPA’s work and indicated he would like to see additional testing of the site before a final
cleanup solution is adopted. The companies who used the dump for toxic waste are pushing a plan to allow for “natural attenuation”
— which essentially means the site will clean up itself.As national ombudsman, a position created at the EPA in 1986, Martin
responds to public concerns, complaints and grievances with the agency. As with other ombudsmen in government agencies, he can
make recommendations but cannot force any changes himself. He is expected to be independent and impartial and is free to criticize
Probes may take more than a year. Typically, the investigations include interviews with public officials and others, and public
hearings, which are recorded by a court reporter, as well as the review of government records, the use of independent analysts and
preliminary and final recommendations.
Martin believes his investigations have made a “huge” difference to the public. He is at work on more than 20 cases, including a
review of EPA cleanup plans in Lake Township and an incinerator in East Liverpool.
Martin said none of the regional ombudsmen has conducted an investigation similar to his.
Instead, they spend the majority of their time fielding questions from the public, often referring callers to government officials who
can assist them, according to several who were interviewed for this story.
But they believe they can do the job.
“I think regional ombudsmen could take on those kinds of cases,” said Doug Ballotti, regional ombudsman in Chicago. “We’ve had
yet to have that opportunity.”
Other regional ombudsmen who said they hadn’t handled these kinds of cases include Ken Kryszczun in Philadelphia; Kathleen Curry
in Atlanta and Sally Seymour, former regional ombudsman in San Francisco.
But Sonya Pennock, regional ombudsman in Denver, said she has completed two, one at a landfill near Denver and the other at a
chemical disposal facility in Utah, and is at work on a third at a former weapons plant in Colorado.
“I’m just learning how to do it, the fact-finding, and hoping that I will get better,” she said. “ ... I think I approach it in a somewhat
more low-key way” than Martin, she said. “I met individually with people. I attended meetings that were already scheduled.”
Curry sees the role differently.
“I’m more of a facilitator, I’m not an investigator,” Curry said. “Facilitators look at both sides objectively. Sometimes when parties
are in conflict they don’t listen to each other, so they’re missing opportunities where they can find resolution.”
While Martin is full-time, his regional counterparts perform their ombudsman duties part time while holding other jobs with the EPA.
Ballotti, for example, spends up to 20 percent of his time as ombudsman while his primary job is manager of the region’s Superfund
enforcement program. Curry is a brownfield projects manager while Kryszczun is chief of technical and administrative support in a
regional Superfund program. Pennock’s main job is manager of public affairs and involvement in the region.
Even regional ombudsmen who believe they could become investigators say the EPA would have to provide them with more
resources to do the job. Regional ombudsmen typically have no staff and minimal funding to cover expenses.
If the rules are adopted, Pennock said, “The region would have to reevaluate how it provides the resources for this. I don’t believe I
can do my official job and then do this other (ombudsman) job.”
One of the chief criticisms of the proposal is that regional ombudsmen have an inherent conflict of interest. Their supervisors are the
regional administrators, the same people who preside over the decisions that the ombudsmen must review.
“The whole point of independence is that the ombudsman is (supposed to be) removed from any situation where those who are
being investigated, or those whose supervisors are being investigated, have any power to influence what the ombudsman does or
does not do,” said Dean Gottehrer, a spokesman for the U.S. Ombudsman Association, which has filed objections to the proposal.
Pennock acknowledged the awkwardness of probing the actions of her superiors.
“It’s uncomfortable, you feel disloyal there,” she said. But she added, “I have never, ever felt that there was any retribution.”
Other regional ombudsmen are not worried.
“The independence is always a question that comes up,” Kryszczun said. “Nobody is totally independent. It’s a question of degree.
And I think for 90 percent of the issues that I have to handle as a regional ombudsman, independence is not an issue.”
Curry added: “There’s no problem there because all I’m rendering at the end of it is a recommendation. So I’m a threat to no one,
because ultimately decisions will lie with the decision-makers as to how to proceed.”