July 30, 2001
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State attorney's penalty collection hits seven-year low
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 private sector.''

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 lawsuit.

"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 right?''

mhawthorne@dispatch.com

 
     
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