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Proposal would impose limit on time to assess penalties

The Associated Press
2/20/02 6:21 PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- A bill that places a five-year limit on the time the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency could seek fines for businesses that pollute would reduce case backlogs at the EPA and help create jobs, backers said Wednesday.

However, environmentalists who oppose the bill said its language is vague and that it should exclude local governments from its provisions.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jay Hottinger, a Newark Republican, would give the EPA five years from the discovery of a problem to begin an investigation that could result in a court- or agency-ordered penalty. It would help resolve cases quickly, said Rep. James Trakas of Independence, the No. 5 Republican in the House.

The EPA would also have two years from the bill's enactment to impose fines in cases where it was aware of a problem for at least three years.

The Senate passed the bill Nov. 15. It currently is in the House Energy and Environment Committee, where it was scheduled for a hearing on Thursday. The committee likely will vote on the bill next week, committee Chairwoman Nancy Hollister, a Marietta Republican, said.

Businesses have complained that the threat of EPA action against them has undermined their attempts to grow or expand, Trakas said.

"Environmental protection does not have to be a bureaucratic quagmire that takes forever," Trakas said. "We want to protect the environment, but we've got to do it in an expedient manner so we're not sending away jobs and people."

Passage of the bill in its current form, however, would give businesses an unfair edge, environmental advocates said.

When businesses report a problem to the EPA, they often play down its severity and it may take much longer for investigators to learn the extent of the problem, said Jack Shaner, a lobbyist for the Ohio Environmental Council.

The bill states that the five-year clock starts ticking when the agency "actually knew or was informed of the occurrence, omission, or facts on which the cause of action is based." That's too broad, Shaner said.

"A five-year statute of limitations is fair, but fuzzy language in this bill could keep all but the tip of the iceberg covered up," Shaner said. "Investigations can take years and the bill could hamstring enforcers."

The EPA is officially neutral on the bill but can live with the language, said Laura Powell, the agency's chief lobbyist.

The agency has made progress in resolving cases and should continue to do so within the bill's limit, and without losing potential fines, said Joe Koncelik, assistant agency director. Currently, the EPA has 239 cases under investigation, with none going back more than five years, Koncelik said. The average case is less than one year old, he said.

"It's certainly not our intention to forgo civil penalties on any case where we think it's appropriate. Those will become priority cases that will need to be addressed," Koncelik said.

The bill also applies the restrictions to cities and counties, which often pursue cases the EPA does not, said Marc Conte of the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter.

"As the bill stands right now, it applies to state and local governments and we don't think it should apply to local governments," Conte said.


On the Net:

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