Canton Repository

January 15, 2003

Activists complain about ombudsman 

Copley News Service 

WASHINGTON — A restructuring of the national ombudsman’s office in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year was supposed to improve its value to the public.

But some of the main constituents of that service, citizen activists from across the nation, gathered on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to criticize the change.

They also called on Congress to pass legislation creating an independent ombudsman office, and several lawmakers said they would introduce legislation to do that.

Historically, the EPA ombudsman has served as a last stop for people who feel EPA officials who plan and direct the cleanup of heavily contaminated areas have ignored or slighted their concerns.

Nine activists involved in the cleanups at federal hazardous waste sites said they have received little if any help from the ombudsman since the position was restructured last April.

“We haven’t heard a thing from the new ombudsman,” said Terry Witsaman, a board member with Concerned Citizens of Lake Township in Ohio. The group is a longtime critic of the EPA’s cleanup plans at the Industrial Excess Landfill in Uniontown.

Witsaman and others praised the former ombudsman, Robert Martin, who quit last year when his position was transferred to the EPA inspector general’s office.

EPA officials had said the transfer would give Martin more independence and resources, but Martin said it was a ploy to eliminate his independence.

As ombudsman for almost 10 years, Martin gained a loyal following as he often sided with people who live near Superfund sites, issued recommendations to change cleanup plans or sought to find common ground between citizens and government.

Martin, now president of the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation in Tallahassee, Fla., moderated the hearing Tuesday. The Government Accountability Project and Project for Government Oversight, which favors independent ombudsman legislation, sponsored the briefing.

Activists said Martin’s replacement, acting ombudsman Mary “Peggy” Boyer, has been out of sight or unresponsive to their complaints and concerns.

Susan Shortz, president of a citizens group at the former Marjol battery recycling site in Throop, Pa., said she has not heard from Boyer since requesting a meeting with her in December.

At the former Shattuck plant in Denver, activist Deborah Sanchez said the EPA had promised the ombudsman would continue to be involved at the site to make sure radioactive waste was removed properly.

“Yet over the past two years, we have watched the office ... be dismantled and incapacitated until no support was left,” she said. “No one from that office has contacted us to ask if they can be of service.”

Jenna Orkin, a critic of the EPA cleanup at Ground Zero, said she has seen no evidence of a supposed investigation by the EPA inspector general’s office.

“We have not seen nor spoken to her (Inspector General Nikki Tinsley) nor to anyone from her office,” Orkin said. “By contrast, the former ombudsman Martin and his chief investigator (Hugh) Kaufman continue to take an active interest in us, and we hear from them regularly.”

Eileen McMahon, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said Boyer is working on several cases, including Marjol in Pennsylvania and Ground Zero.

Responding to specific complaints, she said the inspector general’s office never received the letter from Shortz requesting a meeting. But she said Boyer found out about the request and has since written to Shortz saying a meeting is possible.

The inspector general’s office is looking into how the EPA responded to environmental concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center and will issue a report in the spring, McMahon said.

As for Shattuck, the ombudsman office has ended its involvement there and “based on the absence of any feedback, we assumed the parties are satisfied with the current situation,” she said.

Several lawmakers who have introduced legislation to create an ombudsman office in the past said they are going to try again this year.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said he is working with Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., to introduce a bill. Legislation they sponsored won approval from a Senate committee late last year but did not make it to the full Senate before adjournment.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Fla., another supporter of an independent ombudsman, plans to introduce a similar bill in the House.