Superfund Investigations Suspended as Furor Rages at EPA
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Superfund Investigations Suspended as Furor Rages at EPA
By Brian Hansen
WASHINGTON, DC, January 8, 2001 (ENS) - A federal ombudsman
responsible for investigating complaints leveled against the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency has suspended his inquiries into
nearly two dozen allegedly mismanaged hazardous waste cleanup
projects, claiming that top EPA officials have blocked him from doing
Robert Martin, the EPA's national hazardous waste ombudsman,
announced the suspension of the investigations on Friday in a letter
sent to key government officials and other stakeholders involved in
the allegedly mishandled cleanup cases.
"In view of reported recent personnel transfers and pending
implementation of EPA Ombudsman Guidelines ... all schedules for all
National Ombudsman Cases have been put on hold and/or delayed
until further notice," Martin wrote. "I will communicate with you as
soon as I have received clear and consistent direction from EPA
management, which will allow me to develop definitive schedules for
performing work on all the pending National Ombudsman Cases."
Martin and his staff had
been investigating the
cleanup projects at the
request of a number of
federal lawmakers, who
were concerned that the EPA's activities in the cases were not
protective of public health and the environment.
The investigations that were put on "hold" Friday pertained to some
of the most controversial hazardous sites in the nation, such as the
Honeywell/Solitron Superfund site in Florida, the Bunker Hill Superfund
site in Idaho, and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Superfund site in
A total of 20 EPA hazardous waste ombudsman investigations had
been officially suspended as of Friday afternoon.
Other investigations on the newly announced suspension list include
the Alberton train derailment case in Montana, the Marjol Battery
case in Pennsylvania, the sewage sludge contamination case in
Georgia, the Stauffer/Atkemix case in Florida, and the Von Roll Waste
Technologies Industries hazardous waste incinerator case in Ohio.
ALLEGATIONS OF "POLITICAL REVENGE"
Martin sent courtesy copies of his letter announcing the suspension
of the investigations to top EPA officials, including administrator Carol
Browner and assistant administrator Tim Fields.
Fields, who oversees the EPA's solid
waste division, played a key role in the
"personnel transfers" that Martin
described in his letter. In a
controversial move that has drawn fire from environmental activists
and a host of federal lawmakers, Fields last month relieved Martin's
chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman, of his duties in the EPA
Kaufman, a 30 year EPA veteran, claims that he was ousted from the
ombudsman's office because he exposed EPA wrongdoing at a number
of agency managed hazardous waste cleanup sites.
An aggressive investigator, Kaufman has accused EPA officials of
misleading the public, hiding documents, conspiring with polluters,
and approving cleanup schemes that are not protective of public
health and the environment.
Moreover, Kaufman maintains that his ouster was "political revenge"
for his office's damning revelations about failed Democratic
presidential candidate Al Gore, whose environmental record was
called into question by an ombudsman's report released just five days
before the 2000 presidential election.
Kaufman, in fact, was stripped of his
investigatory powers by Fields just one day
after Gore formally conceded the contested
presidential election to Republican George W.
Bush, the two term governor of Texas. Fields,
like EPA chief Browner, is a political appointee
of the outgoing Clinton administration.
"It's revenge of the EPA bureaucracy and revenge of the politicos
who wanted Gore elected," Kaufman told ENS of his recent removal.
"After Gore conceded, there was a confluence of revenge from the
politicos and the entrenched bureaucracy to cripple the ombudsman's
NEW OMBUDSMAN'S GUIDELINES CALLED INTO QUESTION
The EPA's first step in "killing" the [ombudsman's] office, Kaufman
said, was to get rid of him as the office's only full time investigator.
The EPA took another major step towards that alleged goal last
week, Kaufman said, by publishing in the Federal Register a set of
proposed guidelines that outline how the office is to operate.
"Basically, the guidelines totally violate every minimum requirement
for ombudsmen as stated by the American Bar Association, the U.S.
Ombudsman Association, and the Administrative Conference of the
United States," Kaufman said. "The guidelines give the ombudsman
absolutely no independence, and that will kill the program."
Kaufman said that the proposed guidelines would require the EPA
ombudsman to get approval from the agency's politically appointed
managers before doing anything of substance. The guidelines would
prevent the ombudsman's office from selecting its own cases, while
allowing the people and institutions to be investigated to decide
"whether they want to be investigated or not," he said.
Kaufman has had to launch a campaign of his own to dispel the
notion that he supports the new guidelines. That misconception was
put in motion by Fields, who in an internal EPA memo last week
thanked Kaufman and a host of other agency employees for their
"help in writing [the guidelines]."
Kaufman, in his own memo, pointed out that he did not help to draft
the new guidelines.
"In fact, as you know, I opposed [the guidelines] because [they]
strip away what limited ombudsman function EPA presently has,"
Kaufman wrote. "The proposed [guidelines] falsely imply to the public
and to Congress that there is a real ombudsman function at EPA,
[and] this is simply not true."
REPUBLICAN LAWMAKERS BLAST EPA
That comes as no surprise to three Republican U.S. Senators who
have utilized the ombudsman's office to investigate allegedly
mismanaged cleanup cases in their states. In a letter addressed to
Fields, Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Larry Craig, along with
Colorado Senator Wayne Allard, called on the EPA to scrap the
proposed new guidelines. The Senators, in their letter, said that the
guidelines would jeopardize the "integrity, function, and independence
of the Ombudsman's Office."
"The limitations and prohibitions prescribed by the [proposed
guidelines] are very troubling to us," the three Western Senators
wrote. "We consequently request that any implementation of [the
guidelines] be deferred indefinitely."
That view is shared by at least 11 House
members, who last week called on
President-elect Bush to remedy a "very
serious situation that is occurring at the
EPA in the waning days of the Clinton
In their letter to Bush, the 11 House
members charge that the EPA, through Fields, has launched a
process of "retribution" against Martin, Kaufman, and the other
members of the ombudsman's office. Kaufman's reassignment, the
House members pointed out, would effectively prevent the office
from making any progress on its many pending investigations. And the
newly proposed guidelines, the members added, would "essentially
prevent the Ombudsman from performing his official duties."
"We believe that maintaining a strong EPA Ombudsman function will
ensure that EPA continues to make environmental policy decisions
that are both common sense and community oriented," the House
members wrote in their letter to Bush. "We look to your administration
to prevent permanent damage from being done to the integrity of this
office at the initiative of Clinton political appointees in the immediate
wake after Vice President Gore's concession speech."
EPA FIRES BACK
Fields has denied charges that the EPA is trying to cripple the
functioning of its own ombudsman's office. In a recent letter to
Colorado Senator Wayne Allard, Fields said that he believes "strongly
in the Ombudsman function and will continue to provide appropriate
resources and staff to support it as a credible and valuable entity."
"We believe that an effective ombudsman ... can materially improve
citizen satisfaction and the workings of government, reduce the
occasion for litigation, and provide [EPA] decision makers with the
information necessary to identify and resolve problems," Fields wrote
in his letter to Allard.
As evidence of the EPA's commitment, Fields pointed out to Allard
that the agency has granted the ombudsman's office more than
$900,000 in this fiscal year to cover salaries, contracts, and other
support costs. The office's current budget, Fields told Allard, is nearly
double what it has been in previous years.
Fields also pointed out that he has supplemented the office's staff
with an additional environmental scientist, as well as several student
interns who were hired with grant funds.
But Fields told Allard that he could not comment on the reassignment
of Kaufman, citing a federal law that he said precluded him from
discussing specific information regarding an "internal personnel
decision." Fields has also declined to respond to ENS queries about
the reasons for Kaufman's reassignment.
KAUFMAN CRIES FOUL
Kaufman told ENS that Fields "misled" Allard, Crapo and Craig
regarding the EPA's commitment to supporting the ombudsman's
office. Kaufman said that because of the way the ombudsman's office
is structured, the additional funding and staff resources that have
been extended to it are essentially meaningless.
"All of that money is controlled by management ... and the
ombudsman has no authority to supervise any of those [human]
resources," Kaufman said. "Just like me, they can be taken away at
any time by management and directed to do other things."
Martin alluded to that point in his letter
announcing the suspension of his office's
casework, saying that "reported" personnel
transfers have made it impossible for him to
conduct his work.
Sources in the ombudsman's office tell ENS
that Martin has still not been officially notified
by Fields or other top EPA officials about
But more directly, Martin wrote in his letter
that such personnel transfers are "beyond [his] control as National
FIELDS WIELDS THE PEN
Fields is directly responsible for undermining Martin's authority to
supervise employees in his office, according to EPA documents made
available to ENS through the federal Freedom of Information Act.
Fields did so - without first informing Martin - by scribbling over the
word "Director" on Martin's official title, as it appeared on Martin's job
performance report for fiscal year 1997. The change, which Fields
initialed in shorthand, effectively stripped Martin of his abilities to
Martin was not aware of the change in his job description until
several months later, when he received a copy of his evaluation. He
immediately wrote a letter to Fields, saying that "we did not discuss
any changes in my job," further requesting that the change be
Martin noted that because he had not been notified of the change in
his job description, he technically committed perjury when he
testified in 1997 before a federal grand jury hearing evidence
pertaining to the Times Beach Superfund Site in Missouri. Fields, who
knew that Martin had been subpoenaed to testify before the grand
jury, failed to inform Martin of the change in his job description prior
to his testimony.
For Kaufman, the incident further illustrates what he said is the
underlying principle of the entire situation: the lack of independence
and autonomy for the ombudsman's office. And such a flawed
institutional structure, Kaufman said, would not be tolerated at other
For example, there would be "public outrage" if the ombudsman for
the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had to get permission from
politically appointed IRS officials before conducting tax audits of
powerful corporations, Kaufman said. Such a system, he said, would
be exceedingly vulnerable to corruption, collusion and political deal
"Why should it be that way at EPA?" Kaufman asked.
AN UNSETTLED FUTURE
There is currently legislation pending on Capitol Hill that would give
the EPA ombudsman's office broad legal authority and institutional
independence to conduct its investigations. The legislation,
sponsored by Colorado Senator Wayne Allard, will be reintroduced at
the earliest possible date, sources tell ENS.
Questions about the ombudsman's function are also likely to
constitute a significant part of the upcoming Senate confirmation
hearing on Christine Todd Whitman, President-elect Bush's nominee
for EPA administrator. Colorado Senator Wayne Allard, for one, will be
"very, very disappointed" if Whitman does not express enthusiastic
support for a strong and independent EPA ombudsman, sources tell
Efforts are continuing on Capitol Hill to have Kaufman reinstated to
his post in the ombudsman's office before the Clinton administration
relinquishes power to the Bush team on January 20, sources tell ENS.
Whitman's confirmation hearing is slated for January 16 in the
Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee.
The public comment period on the EPA's proposed ombudsman
guidelines will close on March 5. To read the guidelines and to
comment on them, log on to:
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