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Ohio EPA finds "significant" errors in federal review of its programs

By MALIA RULON
The Associated Press
10/23/01 7:35 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has found numerous errors in a federal review critical of how the state agency handled clean air and water programs in the last decade, EPA Director Christopher Jones said in an official response filed Tuesday.

"The cumulative effect of these errors is to create the impression of a troubled program," Jones said. "Ohio EPA believes that impression is in error."

The U.S. EPA in its preliminary 224-page report gave its Ohio counterpart a stern warning that if its handling of federal programs does not improve, the federal agency would move to take control of the agency's enforcement power.

"In many cases, U.S. EPA relied on the inaccurate data to conclude that Ohio's program deficiencies could force commencement of withdrawal proceedings if not corrected," the state said.

The federal review examined the state agency's administration of eight federal programs, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, from 1995 to 2000.

It was released Sept. 4 amid the controversial nomination of former Ohio EPA Director Donald Schregardus to be the federal EPA's top enforcer of rules. Schregardus later withdrew from consideration.

The Ohio agency noted 17 "significant" errors in the review and has asked the U.S. EPA to "work with Ohio EPA to create an accurate final report that is a fair evaluation of Ohio's air program" before a Nov. 13 public hearing in Columbus.

According to the state, the U.S. EPA erred in its claim that it did just 105 inspections of the largest air emissions sources in Ohio in 1999 because it "looked at the wrong database." According to the state, the correct number of inspections was 698.

"U.S. EPA significantly underreported the number of inspections performed for every year contained in the report," the state said.

The U.S. EPA also erred when it said staffing levels for air pollution control programs were a serious concern because the Ohio EPA was short 179 employees. The accurate number of vacancies was 14, the state said.

The state also said there has not been a downward trend in the number of enforcement cases resolved by Ohio EPA but rather a fluctuation from year to year.

"While any program can be improved -- and we stand ready to work with the U.S. EPA to improve this one -- the draft report has done a serious disservice to Ohioans by impairing their confidence in Ohio EPA," Jones said.

The review was started in 1997 after four Ohio environmental groups -- Ohio Citizen Action, the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, Rivers Unlimited and the Sierra Club -- asked the EPA to revoke the state's authority to run its programs.

A message seeking comment was left with the U.S. EPA on Tuesday.

Environmentalists are standing by the report.

"It's a document that shows exactly what we've been charging, which is an agency that has stopped enforcing the laws," said Sandy Buchanan of Ohio Citizen Action.

She and others are planning a strong showing at the public hearing.

"We're concerned that one of the things that's missing in all of this is the citizens whose lives have been directly harmed by what the Ohio EPA has been doing," she said. "And there are lots and lots of them."

------

On the Net:

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

The Ohio EPA response to the review is available online: http://www.epa.state.oh.us/dir/ohresp.html

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

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