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EPA finds problems with Ohio agency in most extensive report ever

By MALIA RULON
The Associated Press
9/5/01 6:59 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's most extensive audit on a state counterpart has produced a long list of problem areas for Ohio, from a lack of public accountability to a sparse staff that has fallen behind on issuing permits and assessing fines.

The federal agency has said while these and other criticisms are serious, they are not insurmountable.

Other states have dealt with and are dealing with similar problems, said Tom Skinner, who directs the EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago.

"If you look at any one of the problems that we found with Ohio, I can't tell you that those problems or issues haven't arisen with other states," Skinner said Wednesday. "It's just that they get worked out, and I hope that's what's going to happen here."

According to the EPA report, the Ohio agency doesn't employ enough people to run its clean air programs, has a high level of vacancies in its Division of Air Pollution Control and doesn't have a training program in place to ensure consistency across the state.

The state says it isn't understaffed because fewer facilities than originally estimated need clean air permits, and the EPA didn't count staff at local air agencies that do contract work for the Ohio agency. It admitted to having 14 vacancies at the division in question, but said the spots were being filled by a "hiring process."

The EPA report said there had been a decline in recent years of inspections, enforcement case conclusions, complaint investigations and collected penalty amounts in the Division of Air Pollution Control.

The state called this a "contradiction" because overall, it said, Ohio's enforcement programs were rated very strong.

"Air pollution penalties account for nearly half of the $68 million in penalties assessed over the past 10 years, a figure which helps form the basis of U.S. EPA's positive endorsement of Ohio's enforcement efforts," the state agency said in a news release.

The state said it's not behind on issuing air pollution permits.

"Many of these facilities reduced their emissions so they would not need Title V permits, a strategy that both reduces the permitting workload and benefits the environment," the agency said.

Problems with the state agency came to light in a review released this week that examines the state agency's administration of eight federal programs, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, from 1995 to 2000.

"These aren't unique to Ohio," Skinner said of the problem areas. "We constantly do reviews of individual state programs. What's unusual about this one is that we are reviewing a whole bunch of programs at once."

The review was started after four Ohio environmental groups asked the EPA to revoke the state's authority to run these programs. A final report card for the agency will be released by the EPA after an October public hearing in Columbus.

Meanwhile, the agency denied that the report's release on the day the U.S. Senate returned to Washington had anything to do with the snagged nomination of former Ohio EPA Director Donald Schregardus to serve as the federal agency's top enforcer.

"The timing of the report, the substance of the report, nothing in the report has anything to do with Donald Schregardus," Skinner said.

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.

Representatives from both senator's offices said the concerns that led to the holds have not been resolved by the report.

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The 224-page EPA draft report is available for download: http://www.epa.gov/region5/ohioreview

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

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