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Wednesday, September 05, 2001

Ohio in hot water over air quality


U.S. EPA calls for reforms

By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned Ohio that it could lose authority over its clean air programs unless it improves oversight and enforcement against polluters.

        A draft report by the EPA's regional office in Chicago found that the state has taken adequate steps to enforce federal clean water and hazardous waste regulations and that its criminal enforcement of polluters is among the best in the nation.

        But the EPA, which had described its 18-month review in Ohio as unprecedented, recommended that the state promptly enact reforms to avoid a possible federal takeover of its clean air programs.

        “Overall, Ohio continues to make progress in protecting the environment,” EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said. “Nonetheless, there is work to be done, together.”

        The EPA prefers to prod states toward better enforcement practices rather than take the extreme step of assuming control over programs. Ohio environmentalists petitioned the EPA to take over Ohio's environmental enforcement after years of complaints that the state was not aggressive enough.

        “We were surprised that the Bush administration has gone as far as it has gone,” said David Altman, a Cincinnati attorney who represents the environmental groups that filed the petition. “I believed they were really going to whitewash the problem.”

        The EPA recommended that Ohio increase staffing and training in its clean air programs, involve the public more in its policy reviews, streamline its permit process, create a better method to track polluters, and improve its inspections.

        The state has a month to respond to the report before the EPA holds a public meeting in Columbus in October on its findings. The EPA will issue a final report a month after the meeting.

        Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones said the report's conclusion that most of the state's environmental enforcement is sound removes a cloud from the agency and its staff.

        In a detailed response Tuesday, Mr. Jones said, among other things, that there is a contradiction in the report on clean air enforcement. The EPA claimed that there had been a decline in air pollution inspections, investigations and penalties while at the same time rating overall enforcement as strong. Over the past 10 years, Mr. Jones said, civil penalties from clean air cases accounted for 47 percent of the $68 million in total penalties.

        Mr. Jones also said the Ohio EPA reached an agreement with the EPA to temporarily reduce air pollution inspections to concentrate on meeting deadlines for reviewing permits.

        The report comes at an awkward time for Donald Schregardus, a former Ohio EPA director nominated by the Bush administration to become assistant administrator of the EPA. Environmentalists have tried to derail the nomination by criticizing his enforcement record in Ohio.

        “It's not good news for Donald Schregardus,” said Maria Weidner, a policy advocate here for Earthjustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group. “This is a really bad report card for the Ohio EPA.”

       



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