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EPA ombudsman resigns, prompting new legislation

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After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) embattled national ombudsman resigned late last month, his congressional allies are trying to push legislation that would maintain the independence of the office.

As the national ombudsman for the EPA, Robert Martin traveled the country investigating how the agency manages hazardous waste sites. Martin became a popular figure in communities like Alberton, site of a 1996 chemical spill, where residents felt lost in a maze of government bureaucracy and corporate impenetrability.

Last year, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman decided to transfer the ombudsman into the EPA inspector general’s office. Martin objected, saying it would take away his independence and fought the move in court. A judge dismissed his lawsuit in April and Martin resigned a short time later.

“I have objected to your decision to dissolve the Ombudsman function as it relates to the hazardous waste and Superfund programs,” Martin wrote to Whitman in his resignation letter.

Eileen McMahon, spokesperson for the EPA inspector general’s office, says the agency was “surprised and disappointed” by Martin’s resignation.

“We were counting on his expertise and his contribution to help maintain the continuity of the existing open cases, and unfortunately it will be an additional challenge for us in the transfer, but we will move ahead,” McMahon says. Whitman has said that her decision will make the ombudsman position stronger. Mary M. “Peggy” Boyer, a longtime official in the inspector general’s office, has been appointed acting ombudsman.

Senator Mike Crapo (R–Idaho) has sponsored a bill called the Ombudsman Reauthorization Act, which would give the ombudsman independent control over budget and hiring decisions. After Martin’s resignation, Crapo and several other members of congress wrote to Sen. James Jeffords (I–Vt.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, to ask him to expedite the hearing on the bill.

“Crapo’s feeling is, the best way to deal with it is to pass this legislation and get it out of the hands of the administrator and into an independent office,” says Lindsay Northern, a spokesperson for Sen. Crapo. The Idaho Republican has been highly critical of the EPA’s management of a Superfund site in the Silver Valley.

“Without a strong ombudsman’s office, communities have no recourse with the EPA,” says Lucinda Hodges, director of the Alberton Community Coalition for Environmental Health. She adds that although she is saddened by Martin’s departure, she respects his integrity for leaving. Years after the spill in their town, Alberton residents got a boost when Martin came to hold hearings in Missoula on the cleanup, which led to further environmental testing. The EPA is still deciding how to classify Alberton, a process which could take another year or two.

“I expect with this new development we’ll probably be collecting even more dust on some bureaucratic shelf,” Hodges says.

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