State attorney's penalty collection hits
Monday, July 30, 2001
Dispatch Environment Reporter
Fines collected from polluters by Ohio Attorney General
Betty Montgomery's office dipped to $3 million last year, the
lowest amount in seven years.
Enforcement of environmental laws was hampered in part by a
lack of attorneys to go after polluters. Of the 30 positions
in Montgomery's office dedicated to environmental cases, 17
were vacant for a portion of the past two years, according to
a report prepared by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
The report, obtained by The Dispatch last week, also shows
that at the end of last year, 71 unresolved cases referred to
Montgomery's office by the EPA were more than three years old.
EPA officials compiled the statistics in response to an
unprecedented review of the state's enforcement efforts by the
U.S. EPA. Four environmental groups -- Ohio Citizen Action,
the Ohio Public Interest Research Group, Rivers Unlimited and
the Sierra Club -- asked the federal agency last year to strip
Ohio of its authority to enforce federal anti-pollution laws.
Fining polluters who violate laws governing air, water and
hazardous waste is one measure of the state's performance. As
with similar agencies in other states, the Ohio EPA conducts
most enforcement actions but refers some cases to the attorney
general's office, an arrangement that occasionally prompts
disputes about how the cases are handled.
Ohio EPA Director Christopher Jones, who previously headed
the attorney general's environmental section, said he has
pressed state officials to eliminate a large backlog of
inspections, citizen complaints and expired pollution permits.
After a four-year decline, fines collected by the Ohio EPA
rose to $2.3 million last year -- more than double the amount
collected the year before, according to the report.
"I take issue with anybody who says we don't have a strong
enforcement program,'' Jones said. "People want the system to
work faster, but we are constantly out there doing the work.''
Joe Case, Montgomery's spokesman, blamed the drop in
penalties collected by the attorney general's office last year
on an unusually high turnover of environmental lawyers. There
now are three vacancies in the environmental section, he said.
"These folks are a hot commodity,'' Case said. "State
government just isn't as competitive salary-wise as the
Much of the environmental work conducted by Montgomery's
office last year was focused on prosecuting Buckeye Egg, owner
of a series of massive confined-animal barns in north-central
Ohio and one of the nation's largest egg producers.
In its 27-count lawsuit, filed in December 1999, the state
accused Buckeye Egg of dumping dead chickens in a field,
improperly handling manure and causing infestations of flies,
beetles and other insects. The company agreed in January to
pay a $1 million fine to settle the case.
Responding to huge fly infestations that continue to plague
neighbors of Buckeye Egg's facilities, the state asked a
Licking County judge last month to imprison company officials
for continued violations of environmental laws.
State officials typically point to the Buckeye Egg case
when questioned about their enforcement of anti-pollution
laws. But environmental groups accuse Montgomery and the
administrations of Gov. Bob Taft and former Gov. George V.
Voinovich of being too friendly to the business community and
not tough enough on other polluters.
"They've failed to protect citizens from exposure to
dangerous chemicals and other forms of pollution,'' said Sandy
Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action.
Two major environmental cases pending in Ohio are being
handled by the Justice Department and the U.S. EPA.
In one case, the government sued Columbus-based American
Electric Power and two other Ohio utilities, accusing the
companies' coal-fired plants of violating the Clean Air Act.
One company, Cincinnati-based Cinergy, has agreed to a
settlement, but the other companies have denied the charges
and are fighting the government in court.
The Justice Department and the U.S. EPA also stepped in
this month and sued AK Steel in Middletown for air- and
water-pollution violations dating to 1993. The state has
fielded more than 100 complaints from residents about dust
from the plant and pollution in a nearby creek.
Jones said the state was prepared 14 months ago to file its
own lawsuit against AK Steel but was asked by the U.S. EPA to
wait. The state agency now is attempting to join the federal
"We've worked with U.S. EPA by conducting a joint
inspection and attempting to negotiate a settlement,'' Jones
said. "It's just not a legitimate criticism to say we've
ignored what's going on down there.''
Marilyn Wall, conservation chairwoman for the Ohio chapter
of the Sierra Club, said she could find no evidence of a
state-prepared case against AK Steel in stacks of Ohio EPA
files she has reviewed.
In an attempt to draw more attention to its enforcement
efforts, the Ohio EPA issues news releases summarizing nearly
all of the fines the agency assesses. One recent example was a
$14,000 fine levied against Grant Medical Center for
improperly storing and disposing of medical waste.
But until last year, the EPA had no agencywide effort to
track citizen complaints. There were 23 unresolved complaints
at the beginning of last year that were more than three years
old; two were nearly seven years old.
All of those complaints either have been or are close to
being resolved, according to an EPA report.
"The fact that those cases dragged on for so long speaks
volumes about the priorities of the (Ohio) EPA,'' Wall said.
"Who else is going to help us if they don't do their jobs