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U.S. EPA won't strip Ohio agency authority


September 5, 2001

Malia Rulon
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Environmental Protection Agency says it will not strip its Ohio counterpart of enforcement authority for eight programs, including those dealing with air and water pollution.

However, the federal agency gave the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency a stern warning Tuesday that if its handling of federal programs does not improve, the EPA would move to take control of the agency's enforcement power.

``Overall, Ohio continues to make progress in protecting the environment,'' EPA Administrator Christie Whitman said. ``Nonetheless, there is work to be done.''

Specific recommendations in a 224-page preliminary report call for the state to make improvements in issuing permits on time, having trained staff to administer the programs, opening its regulatory practices to the public and improving its inspection strategy and enforcement procedures.

Four environmental groups Ohio Citizen Action, the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, Rivers Unlimited and the Sierra Club have accused the state agency and its former director, Donald Schregardus, of being lax with polluters. They asked the federal agency to take over enforcement of the programs.

The draft report comes as the Bush administration is fighting to secure Senate confirmation of Schregardus for a job as the federal EPA's top enforcer of rules.

Whitman said in a letter to senators last month that Schregardus has ``compiled an impressive record in Ohio'' and that the report released Tuesday should prove that.

But environmentalists say the report proves the Ohio EPA has not been doing things the way it should. They also say it adds to their case against Schregardus.

``All the us EPA is saying is if you fix this complete disaster, then you can continue to run the programs,'' said David Altman, an attorney for the Ohio Citizen Action.

Maria Weidner, a policy advocate for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, said the fact that the EPA couldn't ``sugar coat'' the state's enforcement record proves what her group has been saying about Schregardus.

``The EPA was under pressure to come up with something and this is what they came up with? This confirms all of our concerns,'' she said. ``We think that it's a wake-up call for Ohio EPA and it's bad news for Schregardus.''

Ohio EPA Director Christopher Jones said he wasn't surprised by the report, which he said was proof the state agency has been doing its job.

``No state has seen this kind of scrutiny, so when you look at all these programs, you're going to find issues and we expected that,'' he said. ``The bottom line is despite what the petitioners have said for four years now, there isn't a basis to withdraw our programs.''

Schregardus' nomination was halted last month when two Democratic senators New York's Charles Schumer and California's Barbara Boxer placed a ``hold'' on the confirmation vote.

Boxer and Schumer's offices said the senators were reviewing the report but neither ``hold'' had been lifted.

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