Critics Say Environmental Protection Agency Needs Independent Oversight
By Brian Hansen
WASHINGTON, DC, September 26, 2000 (ENS) - A powerful and independent federal ombudsman is desperately needed to keep tabs on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has routinely tried to "hide the truth from the very people it is charged to protect," a U.S. Senator told a Congressional panel today.
"In essence, I fear that the EPA may be moving to gut the ombudsman's office," Allard told members of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. "My bill will preserve the only mechanism within the EPA that the public can trust to protect their public health and safety."
Allard introduced his bill to protect the ombudsman's office after he was contacted by a group of citizens who were frustrated and concerned over the EPA's plan to clean up the Shattuck Chemical site in Denver, Colorado. The site, highly contaminated with radioactive soils and debris, was added to the EPA's National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites in 1983.
But that all changed after the EPA participated in a series of closed meetings with attorneys representing the Shattuck Chemical Company, the potentially responsible party at the site. In 1992, the EPA issued an order that allowed Shattuck to "stabilize" the radioactive waste on site by mixing it with fly ash and concrete. The resulting monolith of radioactive concrete waste stood 17 feet high.
Denver area residents were outraged at the EPA, which they believed had gone back on its word. Deborah Spaar Sanchez, a resident of Denver's Overland Park neighborhood, was visibly shaken as she told the committee members about her interactions with the EPA.
"They did this without coming back to the community to tell us that they had changed their minds," Sanchez told the Senate panel. "When we asked to see the documents and records of meetings that would explain to us why they changed their minds, we found that the documents were now classified and kept from public scrutiny."
Sanchez said she feared that her son's health problems were the result of the radium contamination from the nearby site. But the EPA was completely unresponsive to her concerns and her repeated requests for information, she told the Senate committee.
"I felt assaulted by the government I had been raised to trust," she said, choking back tears. "I had become like a citizen in one of those 'other countries,' where people can never relax and go to bed at night without fear that at any moment, their government would do something or make some decision ... which could possibly harm or even kill them and their families."
Then Allard stepped in.
"In early 1999, the ombudsman's office began an investigation that determined that the claims made by the residents were not only meritorious, but that EPA officials had engaged in an effort to keep documents hidden from the public, thereby placing their health in danger," said the Colorado senator.
Things changed quickly with the intervention of EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin. EPA officials were forced to admit that they knew that radioactive wastes might eventually leak from the concrete and fly ash monolith, which prompted the agency to reverse its decision regarding the disposition of the Shattuck waste.
In June, much to the delight and relief of the Overland Park residents, the EPA announced that the radioactive amalgamation would be broken up and shipped out of the Denver neighborhood.
"Without the ombudsman's investigation on Shattuck, the residents of Overland Park would have never learned the truth," Allard said.
Allard said he is not alone in his concerns over the EPA's activities, and he emphasized that the Shattuck case is not unique. Allard referred the Senate panel to the research that has been conducted by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a Washington, DC based watchdog group.
In a letter to the committee, POGO executive director Danielle Brian outlined concerns articulated by citizens living near EPA Superfund sites in Harris County, Texas, McFarland, California and Tarpon Springs, Florida.
"The communities affected by these sites all had come to view the EPA as not only unresponsive to their concerns, but as active partners with the polluters," Brian wrote. "In fact, it appears that all too often the EPA has even broken the law in its rush to appease the polluting companies [by] withholding documents, holding secret meetings, lying to members of Congress and to the community.
Other federal officials have come to the same conclusion. In June, Congressman Michael Bilirakis, a Florida Republican, wrote to Vice President Al Gore and EPA Administrator Carol Browner to complain about the "blatant disregard for the taxpaying public" that EPA officials had shown during a hearing on the Tarpon Springs Superfund Site.
"My constituents have been extremely distrustful of the EPA, but they were encouraged by the efforts of the Ombudsman," Bilirakis wrote to Gore and Browner. "Unfortunately, any progress achieved over the past several months in increasing public confidence was obliterated by the behavior of EPA [Region 4] representatives."
EPA Region 4 representatives abruptly packed their bags and walked out of the hearing when they were questioned about their work on the Tarpon Springs clean up plan by Martin's chief investigator, Hugh Kaufman.
Diane Thompson, the EPA's associate administrator for congressional and intergovernmental relations, had nothing to say to the Senate panel today about the allegations that have been leveled against the agency by Bilirakis, Allard, and other EPA critics.
Thompson denied that the EPA is trying to "gut" the ombudsman's office, as Allard and others have alleged. "We fully support the National Ombudsman program," Thompson said. "We believe that the ombudsman function is a very important one for the [EPA] and the public."
Still, Thompson said the EPA had concerns about the language of Allard's bill, which would require that the ombudsman's office conform to the organizational structure and operating standards that have been established by the American Bar Association (ABA).
According to Thompson, the ombudsman's powers would reach "beyond the provisions of the original [Congressional] authorization" if the office were allowed to operated under ABA guidelines. Under such standards, the office would enjoy complete independence, confidentiality and impartiality.
Realistically, it is unreasonable to assume that the EPA Ombudsman could be completely independent when interacting with supervisors or employees, Thompson said. An ombudsman's office operating under ABA guidelines would encounter all kinds of problems pertaining to ongoing litigation and the Freedom of Information Act, Thompson added.
Thompson's point was challenged by Senator Mike Crapo, a Republican from Idaho.
"I have strong concerns about the independence of the ombudsman's office," Crapo told Thompson. "If you're going to say that the office should not get involved in litigation, aren't you in effect saying that the office can't get involved in anything significant, and that the office can't function?"
"The point is that we don't want to have processes that undermine each other," Thompson answered.
The EPA is currently in the process of drafting its guidelines for the ombudsman's office, Thompson said.
The present ombudsman, Robert Martin, did not testify at Tuesday's hearing, but he did listen with interest to the testimony of Thompson, Sanchez and the other witnesses.
It is unclear if Congress will have the opportunity to vote on the matter of the ombudsman's office before the November elections, a member of Allard's staff said.