Agency sets clean docket as goal

By JOHN McCARTHY
The Associated Press
7/30/01 5:56 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is making progress on resolving its backlog of old cases, but it must bring state lawyers now joining the EPA team up to speed, state officials said Monday.

According to an internal EPA report, the environmental section of Attorney General Betty Montgomery's office had 17 vacancies during 1999-2000. However, no more than five vacancies occurred at any time, said Joe Case, a Montgomery spokesman. The section currently has three vacancies among the 30 spots available, he said.

Montgomery's office ended 2000 with a total of 71 environmental cases that were at least three years old, the report said. That was down by 21 cases, or 22 percent, from the end of 1999.

Many attorneys left the environmental section, going either to Gov. Bob Taft's administration or to the private sector when Taft took office in January 1999, Case said. Those leaving included environmental section chief Christopher Jones, chosen by Taft to be the EPA's director.

"You see a lot of institutional knowledge leave the office. There's a demand out there in the private and the public sector for these types of attorneys," Case said. "We've had to get attorneys up to speed on these cases. It takes time."

The backlog of similar cases handled within the EPA totaled 110 in January 2000 and was down to 27 by the end of the year, the report said. That backlog is virtually gone, said Joe Koncelik, an assistant EPA director.

The EPA has come under fire from some environmental groups that accuse the agency of dragging its feet over clean air rules.

The U.S. EPA and three Northeastern states filed a lawsuit against four Ohio electric utilities alleging the utilities failed to install required pollution-control equipment in some of their older coal-fired power plants, in violation of federal law. The utilities have denied any such violations. One of the lawsuits -- against Cincinnati-based Cinergy -- has been settled.

Environmentalists in Ohio have criticized the Ohio EPA for not pursuing penalties against the utilities.

"The bottom line is that the violations occurred over a decade ago, but the enforcement action by the (U.S.) EPA was in 1999," said Kurt Waltzer, clean air projects manager for the Ohio Environmental Council.

The Bush Administration, however, may ease off the lawsuits and tackle new cases instead, Koncelik said.

"We decided our limited resources were not best spent getting into that costly litigation," Koncelik said. "Now, I think it's interesting they (Bush administration officials) are reconsidering."

Koncelik said the EPA's priority is to resolve the old cases so the agency can focus on new complaints.

"The longer a case sits, the harder it is (to resolve)," he said.

------

On the Net:

Ohio Attorney General: http://www.ag.state.oh.us/

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency: http://www.epa.state.oh.us/

Ohio Environmental Council: http://www.theoec.org/

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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