The EPA Ombudsman: Who is This Guy?

Although acrid smoke from fires at the World Trade Center site dissipated months ago, the confusion over the air quality, both inside and outside buildings, still lingers. The national ombudsman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency has stepped into the debate, holding two investigative hearings so far. Meanwhile, the ombudsman has filed a lawsuit to prevent EPA commissioner Christine Whitman from dissolving the office. A hearing will be held today in Washington before a federal district court judge. WNYC's Amy Eddings has this profile of the EPA ombudsman.

Kaufman: Last week, the EPA National Ombudsman opened up an independent investigation of EPA's actions as it relates to its response to the World Trade Center horrible, terrible attack…

That's Hugh Kaufman, announcing Ombudsman Robert Martin's investigation in January. Kaufman is the chief investigator ….the second in command, but, often, the first to speak at a hearing or news conference.

Kaufman: And Mrs. Whitman has been trying, in the last month or so, since the September attack, to kill the National Ombudsman office…She's definitely afraid of this investigation…but we are going to move forward.

Kaufman has also claimed that the air is so dangerous near the World Trade Center site, visitors to the viewing platform need to wear respirators; he's said the schools nearby were being re-contaminated with hazardous materials; and he's suggested that Whitman has financial conflicts of interest that may be hampering her commitment to cleaning up the World Trade Center site. The EPA has denied all this. Kaufman and Martin believe their activist approach has put their office in jeopardy.

The Washington office of the ombudsman is not in one of those glorious, Federal-style, limestone buildings. It's located in a shopping mall, near a Safeway supermarket, and a CVS pharmacy. Sixty-year-old Kaufman's been with the EPA since it was founded in 1970, when his boss was still in grade school. He shows me the cramped office, and its desk, spilling over with papers.

Kaufman: I do this to his desk, let me just tell you. I put sutff right here, and it drives him crazy. But…but he's gotten used to me driving him crazy because that's my job, is to drive people crazy.

The ombudsman's office was created by Congress in 1985, and was later made a part of the EPA. Robert Martin was named to the post six years later, in 1992. As ombudsman, Martin can initiate his own investigations into the EPA's handling of hazardous waste clean-ups. Cases are often brought to his attention by citizens and their Congressional representatives.

Martin: Traditionally, the ombudsman stands between, um, the king and governed. The institution originated in Sweden about five centuries ago. It has been increasingly tense to hold the position. Much good has come from it. People have been heard.

Martin is 44 years old, a tall, serious man with thick, graying hair, tied in a ponytail….the opposite of the slight, loquacious Kaufman.

Amy: Would you say that you're the quieter of the two?
Martin: Yeah. But I think, as he'll tell you, I'm the worst of the two. (Laughs)
Amy: In what way?
Martin: I am very….relentless and stubborn in my pursuit of the truth in a matter.
Kaufman: Remember, the ombudsman has no authority to make a mandatory decision for EPA. All he can do is bring parties together and try to use persuasion, based on his judicial temperment. And that's exactly what Bob Martin has, he has a judicial temperment.

Before Robert Martin became the EPA ombudsman, he provided legal representation for Native Americans. Martin is a member of the Macah, a tribe in Washington State. He also owned a company that cleaned up hazardous waste on tribal lands. Martin credits his upbringing as the eldest grandson of a Macah chief as guiding what he does.

Martin: And that is that, this government has a responsibility to take care of its people. And when it doesn't, that's a situation that cries out for justice. And that keeps us very busy lately.

Martin has handled about 26 cases. He says recommendations he's made have been adopted by the EPA at least 75 percent of the time. He says one of his successes was at a Superfund site in Texas, where Monsanto and other companies once stored chemical waste. EPA's regional office had approved a plan to burn the site's contaminated soil in a new, $50 million dollar incinerator. Martin persuaded the EPA to try a different plan: dismantle the incinerator and isolate the pollutants by walling off the site.

Flickinger: If it wasn't for Bob Martin, we would've lost this whole community, with the remedies they were doing, that EPA was insisting on.

Marie Flickinger is the owner of a community newspaper. She had alerted the ombudsman's office about the incineration plan. Patricia Kenworthy was the director of Monsanto's office of regulatory affairs in Washington, during Martin's investigation. She says Martin's solution was a success for the company, too.

Kenilworth: He was quite good at managing to listen to and consider seriously the opinions and problems over everybody involved. And that's a pretty tough job.

One company that has NOT been happy with the EPA ombudsman's work is Von Roll America, which owns the nation's largest hazardous waste incinerator, located in western Ohio. Martin has recommended that the plant be shut down to allow a full investigation of health and environmental issues. Von Roll spokesman Raymond Wayne says Martin's investigation was flawed.

Wayne: We would expect that we would see some ground rules in the investigation, and that they would be adhered to throughout the process. We found the report confused a variety of technical issues and matters. And we also perceived the product to being one of a political statement rather than one that would improve any environmental program.

As for other groups unhappy with Robert Martin, count the EPA as one of them. Local EPA representatives did not show up to either of the two hearings the ombudsman held concerning the World Trade Center, citing concerns about the tone of the investigation. EPA spokesman Joe Martyak says Martin makes careless allegations.

Martyak: His approach has been -- and we are the first to be concerned about any new information that's out there -- but his approach has been to make an allegation and say, unless you can disprove it, it must be true!

Martyak uses as an example Martin's claim that Stuyvesant High School and others near the site were being re-contaminated with lead. Board of Education and EPA officials have said the lead was tracked in, and was cleaned up, and did not constitute a persistant health threat. And Martyak questions Martin's success rate, citing a study of the ombudsman by the General Accounting Office.

Martyak: Since 1996, the ombudsman's office has been involved in cases in 26 locations. And the report indicates there hasn't been a final report written in any of those locations. And that's over a six year period.

Martyak says moving the ombudsman into the general inspector's office of the EPA will give it more freedom, staff, money, and accountability. Hugh Kaufman calls Martyak a liar. And Robert Martin says his allegations are not careless.

Martin: I don't believe it's a fair characterization. My work is based on through fact-finding, and the recommendtions I make are made deliberately.

In New York City, Martin is recommending that the EPA re-clean Stuyvesant High and further upgrade its ventilation system. He also wants the EPA to conduct and pay for office and apartment clean-ups, and protect property owners from assuming that cost. While he waits for a response from the EPA on these recommendations, he's preparing for his day in court today, where he believes the fate of his office lies. For WNYC, I'm Amy Eddings.