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U.S. probe aimed at Ohio EPA |
Complaints say enforcement is lax
Monday, January 31, 2000
BY Randall Edwards
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating complaints that Ohio has failed to enforce major federal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act.
Representatives from the agency's regional office in Chicago came to Columbus this month to establish ground rules with top Ohio EPA officials, and Ohio EPA Director Christopher Jones has spoken with U.S. EPA Regional Director Francis X. Lyons, the Ohio EPA confirmed Friday.
The review of Ohio's water-, air- and hazardous-waste-pollution programs is the most comprehensive evaluation of a state's activities in the agency's history, said Bertram C. Frey, deputy regional counsel.
"This is the first time in the country that we've looked at all three programs together,'' Frey said.
The federal agency is getting involved because environmental groups have accused the state of failing to adequately enforce the three major federal laws that usually are delegated to the states -- the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates the disposal of hazardous wastes.
The groups -- Ohio Citizen Action, Ohio Public Interest Research Group, Rivers Unlimited and the Sierra Club -- have asked the U.S. EPA to revoke Ohio's authority to administer these programs. They want the U.S. EPA to enforce the laws here.
"Anything at this point is better than what we've got,'' said Sandy Buchanan, director of Citizen Action. "The more we look, the more we're finding a pattern that shows a lack of enforcement of environmental laws.''
Environmental groups first petitioned the EPA in 1997, when the debate was raging over Ohio's new audit privilege and immunity law.
The state and federal agencies haggled for months over the audit law, which allows companies to admit and correct pollution problems without being fined. It also allows them to keep some of the information secret.
Ohio made minor changes to its law, and the U.S. EPA backed off. But the environmental groups amended their petitions to focus on the state's enforcement history.
"We look for withdrawal of Ohio's authorization because of the dismal enforcement record they have developed in recent years,'' said Dave Altman, a Cincinnati lawyer representing the groups.
The federal agency can revoke the delegated authority but has never taken away a state program altogether.
"We want to build strong state programs,'' Frey said. "We want Ohio to have these authorities and enforce them. But we must give the petitions a fair review.''
The review will consider how the Ohio EPA sets pollution standards, how it writes permits and how well it enforces violations of those permits, Frey said.
Frey said the review of state records will take several months and likely will include public meetings to discuss the final report.
The environmental groups are hoping a report released today by the Environmental Working Group bolsters their case with the U.S. EPA. The national environmental organization is critical of the Ohio EPA.
According to the report, 14 of 22 major Ohio factories in a U.S. EPA database have violated the Clean Water Act at least once in the past two years. Only one fine has been levied during the same period, against Ormet Corp. in Hannibal, Ohio. The group got its information from the U.S. EPA's Sector Facility Index Project, a new EPA database that tracks permit violations and enforcement in five industrial categories.
None of the companies is located in Columbus.
The group used the same database in May to make similar allegations about the Ohio EPA's enforcement of the Clean Air Act. In that report, the group found that 13 of 31 factories in the database broke federal clean-air laws at least once during a recent two-year period.
The Ohio EPA disputes the report, spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said.
She said nine of the 14 factories listed, including Ormet, have either been fined or are being "pursued for enforcement'' of Clean Water Act violations. Griesmer did not challenge the number of violations reported.
In addition to Ormet, four companies signed consent orders and paid penalties during the two years, Griesmer said. LTV Steel paid $419,000 in October 1998; BP Oil paid $325,000 in April 1998; Timken paid $40,000 in October 1997; and WCI Steel paid $1.14 million in June 1999.
In addition, probes against two factories owned by Wheeling-Pittsburg Steel and the AK Steel plant have been referred to the Ohio attorney general's office, and USS/Kobe Steel is under investigation by the U.S. EPA, she said.
Griesmer said the state will cooperate in the federal investigation.
"It will take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull together everything the U.S. EPA has asked for,'' she said. "However, it can always be helpful to review your operations and see if you can do things better.
"Ironically, the time and effort that will be spent to do this will take time away from the employees that could have been spent on enforcement and other issues.''
Environmental Working Group spokesmen defended the organization's report, saying the EPA is taking credit for fines levied against old violations. For example, the LTV Steel's $419,00 fine was for violations that occurred in 1993, they say.
Representatives from several of factories said they could not comment until they see the Environmental Working Group report.
"They do these reports routinely, based on publicly available information,'' said Alan McCoy of AK Steel. "We don't respond to them.''
Mark Tomasch, a spokesman for LTV Steel, said his company had a compliance rate of 99.9 percent in 1999.
"We have very stringent permits, and we're required to monitor our performance closely,'' he said.
Copyright © 2000, The Columbus Dispatch