May 15, 2002
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Ohio EPA cleaning up act by fining more polluters
Wednesday, May 15, 2002
Dispatch Environment Reporter

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency stepped up its enforcement of anti-pollution laws last year, but still lags behind its performance at the beginning of the last decade.

Under pressure from environmentalists and federal regulators, the agency also eliminated most of its backlog of citizen complaints, some of which were more than seven years old.

State EPA officials made enforcement a priority in response to an unprecedented review of their efforts by the U.S. EPA. Four environmental groups -- Ohio Citizen Action, the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, Rivers Unlimited and the Sierra Club -- petitioned the federal agency to strip Ohio of its authority to enforce laws governing air, water and hazardous waste.

Fining polluters is one measure of the state's performance. The Ohio EPA collected about $2.2 million during 2001, slightly less than the year before but double the amount collected in 1999, according to a report released yesterday by the agency.

Enforcement orders filed by the agency also are on the rise after declining during the late 1990s. The state EPA issued 146 administrative actions against polluters last year, more than the 103 issued in 2000 but still well below the 266 issued in 1991.

"We're very proud of our enforcement record,'' said state EPA Assistant Director Joe Koncelik.

In response to the petition from environmental groups, the Ohio EPA began tracking citizen complaints for the first time in 2000.

As a result, there were nine unresolved citizen complaints at the end of last year, two of which were more than two years old. By contrast, there were 23 unresolved complaints at the beginning of 2000 that were more than three years old; two were nearly seven years old.

"You can tell the agency is feeling the heat,'' said Jennifer O'Donnell of Ohio Citizen Action. "Still, if I lived next to a facility that is poisoning my air, land or water, I would think two years is an incredibly long time to resolve a complaint.''

Environmentalists may see some progress from their efforts to pressure the agency to more aggressively go after polluters. But after a yearlong investigation, federal officials largely absolved Ohio of allegations that it runs shoddy water and hazardous- waste programs.

A draft report prepared by the federal agency demanded changes in Ohio's clean-air programs, noting a decline since 1995 in inspections, investigations and penalties collected from air polluters. It also criticized the state agency for "unduly relying'' on statements by industries it regulates.

Ohio officials contested many of the report's findings. The agency and the attorney general's office also responded by collecting $3 million in fines from air polluters last year, the second highest amount in the past decade.

As with similar agencies in other states, the state EPA conducts most enforcement actions but refers some cases to state lawyers.

Much of the environmental work conducted by Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery's office last year was focused on prosecuting Buckeye Egg Farm, owner of a series of confined-animal barns in north-central Ohio and one of the nation's largest egg producers.

Buckeye Egg agreed last January to pay a $1 million fine to resolve complaints about manure spills, fly infestations and odors from its facilities, but the problems continued. Montgomery's office is back in court this week seeking a ninth contempt charge against the company.

Negotiating the large fine against Buckeye Egg helped Montgomery's office reverse a decline in penalties against polluters. The office assessed nearly $6 million in fines during 2001, one year after posting the lowest collection amount in seven years.

Critics argue that citizens must turn to the federal government when Ohio regulators don't respond to their complaints.

For instance, the U.S. EPA and the Justice Department filed lawsuits in 1999 alleging that American Electric Power and two other Ohio utilities were violating the Clean Air Act.

The federal agencies also stepped in and sued AK Steel in Middletown last year for air- and water- pollution violations dating from 1993. The state has fielded more than 100 complaints about dust from the plant and pollution in a nearby creek.

Although the state has aggressively pursued legal action against Buckeye Egg, the state EPA rebuffed complaints about manure-laden air pollution from the chicken barns. Tests ordered by federal officials last summer showed the facilities should be equipped with pollution controls similar to factories and power plants.

The state EPA didn't publicize its enforcement record last year, when most of the numbers were on the decline. But the agency issued a news release yesterday seeking to draw attention to its "enforcement successes'' during 2001.

"We need to get beyond the number of cases we handle and the amount of penalties we collect,'' Koncelik said. "The bottom line is the environment is getting cleaner.''

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