Canton Repository

January 18, 2004

EPA ombudsman says his role with agency allows objectivity

Copley Washington correspondent

Michael Temchine for Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — When former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman restructured the ombudsman office almost two years ago, critics predicted the post would lose its independence to the detriment of the public.

But Paul McKechnie, appointed acting ombudsman in June, disputes that.

“I feel really good about what we’re trying to do,” he said.

McKechnie, 58, is a Boston native who has been an auditor and manager in the EPA inspector general’s office since 1984. He considers himself independent even though he works under EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley.

As ombudsman, McKechnie takes questions and complaints from the public in connection with hazardous-waste programs or cleanups, such as the Industrial Excess Landfill in Lake Township.

He can review or investigate EPA actions or plans to determine if the agency followed proper procedures. He has no authority to order change, but can issue recommendations to the EPA.

“Our reviews are very independent, and that is the key,” he said. “It’s to be fair and it’s to be objective in our reviews. That’s my primary responsibility.”

In the past, former EPA ombudsman Robert Martin frequently embarrassed or angered EPA officials through reports that found the agency lacking.

When Whitman transferred the post to the inspector general’s office in April 2002, Martin quit in protest, saying the job had become meaningless.

In a report requested by lawmakers around that time, the General Accounting Office concluded that the ombudsman under the inspector general would “lack authority to independently select and prioritize cases that warrant investigation.”

McKechnie said he has experienced no interference since succeeding Mary Boyer, a former acting ombudsman who retired last year.

“I don’t run it by the inspector general as to whether or not I should open up a case,” he said. “If I get something directly and I believe it has merit, by all means I look at it.”

Acknowledging that Tinsley could stop him from pursuing a case if she wished, McKechnie said it hasn’t happened.

“I’ve been doing this stuff for so long — I’ve never had an inspector general tell me not to do anything,” he said.

When Martin departed, he left some two dozen investigations unfinished.

Since then, Boyer or McKechnie have closed five of those cases after determining they required no further investigation.

McKechnie said he has opened two new cases — at an oil refinery in New Jersey and a dairy farm in Kentucky. He is preparing to close three other investigations.

Asked if he has discovered any instances in which the EPA did not act properly since becoming ombudsman, McKechnie said, “No, not yet.”

The job has changed significantly. Although Martin had to make do with a tiny staff, McKechnie has the resources of the entire inspector general’s operation available to him.

“Our teams are made up of auditors, evaluators, engineers, chemists, toxicologists, radiologists — whatever we believe is necessary to help us review the data that was used by the EPA or its state agencies in arriving at a decision,” he said.

When Congress held hearings on the ombudsman transfer, EPA officials said the ombudsman would need permission to talk to lawmakers or reporters.

McKechnie said he operates under no such restraints.

“If the public has a problem with anything that the agency is doing and has not been pleased, you can call the ombudsman,” he said.

While the EPA promotes its complaint hotline — (888) 546-8740, McKechnie said anyone is free to call him directly at (617) 918-1471. He said he doesn’t screen his calls.