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Ohio News

Ohio EPA told to clean up its act


John C. Kuehner
Plain Dealer Reporter

The federal government could take over enforcement of national clean-air laws from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency if the state does not improve its policing efforts.

The U.S. EPA issued the warning in a 224-page preliminary report yesterday that reviews how the Ohio EPA monitors and enforces national air, water and hazardous waste laws.

The federal agency gave recommendations that, if followed, would make it unnecessary to remove the air-pollution program from Ohio's control, said Thomas V. Skinner, head of the EPA's Region 5 office, which includes Ohio.

"We need to make sure that the federal programs delegated to Ohio, or any state, are done in a way that's effective," he said.

Chris Jones, who heads the Ohio EPA, said some of the criticisms are unfair while others are justified. Jones said he would work with the federal government.

"But the bottom line is, they have determined no basis to withdraw the programs," Jones said. "This is an unprecedented review of a state's program, so you would expect issues to come up."

The EPA undertook the review after it was given a broad series of allegations by four environmental groups: Rivers Unlimited of Cincinnati, Ohio Citizen Action, Ohio Public Interest Research Group and the Ohio branch of the Sierra Club.

The groups asked the federal government to withdraw the Ohio EPA's authority to enforce the national laws.

The groups' attorney, D. David Altman, said the U.S. EPA found problems by talking only to agency employees and reviewing agency records. He had given the federal authorities affidavits of 75 residents, none of whom were contacted.

The report on the state's air-pollution program "is a withering indictment, and nothing to be proud of," Altman said.

He said the groups' goal was to lead reform. "The important thing is that Ohio EPA's programs get fixed," he said.

Among the federal government's preliminary findings:

Ohio employs fewer workers than it indicated a decade ago it would need to enforce the laws.

There has been a decline the last few years in air-pollution inspections and follow-up work.

The agency does not have a way to check the accuracy of statements by industries it polices.

Jones said the report relied on a 1992 estimate of workers and that the state needed fewer employees than expected. He said the state's criminal enforcement is among the nation's best. He said air-pollution penalties account for nearly half of the $68 million in penalties assessed over the past decade.

Sen. George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, said he welcomed the report's findings.

The report should reassure senators who are holding up the confirmation of former Ohio EPA Director Don Schregardus as a top enforcement official at the U.S. EPA, Voinovich spokesman Scott Milburn said.

Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Chuck Schumer of New York have blocked Schregardus' confirmation. Concerns have been raised about enforcement of environmental laws when Schregardus headed the state agency.

The Ohio EPA has 30 days to respond to the report. The U.S. EPA will have a meeting in October to hear public comment.

The report can be found at: www.epa.gov/region5/ohioreview/draftreport.htm

Plain Dealer reporter Tom Diemer contributed to this report.

Contact John C. Kuehner at:

jkuehner@plaind.com, 216-999-5325

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