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Published Monday, September 13, 1999,
in the Akron Beacon Journal.

  

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Groups scrutinize Ohio water

  • State EPA disagrees with campaign that asserts agency doesn't crack down on polluters aggressively

    By Bob Downing
    Beacon Journal staff writer

    Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and the state Environmental Protection Agency are the targets of a new campaign by two environmental groups to force polluters to pay for cleaning up polluted drinking-water supplies.

    Ohio Citizen Action and the Environmental Working Group today are issuing a report based on Ohio EPA records and an unpublished 1998 state report that they said prove Ohio has failed to aggressively go after companies that pollute drinking water.

    ``Our point is very simply that the Ohio EPA is not doing its job . . . and is not acting as the enforcement agency that it should be,'' said Amy Ryder of Citizen Action, a statewide environmental-consumer group.

    But the Ohio EPA defended its record and said the charges raised by the two environmental groups are inaccurate, said agency spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer. ``We have not been lax,'' she said.

    Five billboards aimed at getting Taft's attention to correct that problem have been unveiled: two in Cleveland, two in Columbus and one in Cincinnati.

    ``There simply is no environmental cop on the beat at the Ohio EPA,'' Ryder said. ``We are asking the governor and his OEPA appointees to overhaul the agency and . . . enforce the laws. Right now, the polluters take advantage of the OEPA's weak negotiating position and citizens pay the bill.''

    The state is inclined to try to negotiate a settlement with polluters but rarely goes after polluters to make them pay, the report said.

    The Environmental Working Group in Washington, D.C. said that its analysis reveals that polluters paid for cleaning up drinking water contaminated with toxic industrial solvents in only three of 54 Ohio cases.

    And that is putting a financial burden on municipalities and Ohio residents, not on the companies that should be held liable for such pollution, the two groups said.

    Said Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group: ``In every case that (was) investigated, water suppliers are taking the necessary steps to ensure that their tap water meets legal standards to protect human health,'' she said. ``Why, though, should consumers underwrite pollution cleanup and why isn't the state of Ohio doing something about it?''

    Communities in Northeast Ohio cited in the report include Wooster, North Canton and Massillon.

    Wooster discovered pollution near its north well field in 1990 and at its south well field in 1982. Two firms are under EPA orders to help with the cleanup and a third company is under court orders. But the city has paid $1.3 million for interceptor wells and stripping towers and not been reimbursed.

    North Canton detected low levels of industrial pollution in two city wells in 1986 and installed still-in-use air strippers to remove the pollutants. The source of the pollution remains unknown.

    Massillon has low-level pollution in its Lake Street wells. It rotates the use of the wells. The source of the pollution is unknown. The pollution was last detected in 1996.

    A 1998 internal report prepared by the Ohio EPA for then-State Rep. Joy Padgett, R-Coshocton, indicates that 283 Ohio public water supplies -- serving at least 25 persons -- have detected industrial contaminants in their drinking water since 1994.

    The ecological groups said that 26 Ohio communities -- including North Canton -- have well water with low-level pollution.

    Low levels of contaminants are permissible in drinking water if those levels do not exceed federal limits. Different limits -- usually measured in parts per billion -- have been set for many pollutants.

    North Canton Mayor Daryl Revoldt said the city's treated drinking water meets all federal and state limits. ``We do not have a problem,'' he said.

    Griesmer also said the Ohio EPA's enforcement authorities are not as clear cut as the ecological groups indicated. But she said she was unable to say whether the agency feels it needs better-defined authority from the Ohio Legislature.

    It is often difficult and time-consuming to determine what companies may have polluted drinking water and that evidence has to survive legal challenges, said EPA spokesman Carol Hester.

    Griesmer said the agency's records differ from the two groups as far as the number of enforcement steps taken by the EPA.

    The agency, she said, has 18 enforcement orders in place for Ohio companies to clean contaminated water supplies.

    The new report is available at Ohio Citizen Action's site at http://www.ohiocitizen.org on the World Wide Web.

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