Lawmakers Fight EPA Ombudsman Transfer

Democratic and Republican lawmakers testified Tuesday that the Environmental Protection Agency's forced ouster of its public liaison is putting at risk the health of New Yorkers living near Ground Zero.

“Unfortunately, there is now no real ombudsman to keep a watchful eye on the agency,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who was joined by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY. “We will be paying health costs (in New York) for decades for this.”

EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin resigned in April after his office was transferred to the EPA office of inspector general, a move critics charged would emasculate his authority as an independent investigator of citizen complaints against the EPA.

Martin's transfer was authorized by EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman in November but the move didn't occur until April when a federal judge lifted a temporary restraining order.

The IG's office is an independent arm of the EPA that investigates charges of fraud, waste and abuse within the agency. EPA authorities say they moved Martin to the IG's office to give him more resources and oversight of EPA activities. 

“The ombudsman now has the opportunity to utilize the expert assistance of all OIG staff,” said Nikki L. Tinsley, the EPA's inspector general. “I want to assure the public, EPA stakeholders and Congress that we will conduct the ombudsman work with independence and professionalism.”

Martin has been in the ombudsman's position for nearly a decade, conducting investigations that primarily dealt with clean-up of hazardous Superfund sites that were left barren by corporate polluters.

Most recently, he had been investigating complaints of conflict of interest in the office of Administrator Whitman, and of her agency’s response to environmental concerns at the area around Ground Zero, which Nadler said is emitting elevated levels of lead, mercury, dioxin and fine particulate matter since the Sept. 11 World Trade Center collapse.

Martin testified Tuesday that on April 12, his files were seized and locks put on his office door by members of the IG's office while he was out of town.  He said he quit because he was not given the resources, the independence or the authority to protect the citizens who came to him for help.

“To go there right now, under these terms, in my mind would be a betrayal of my role as an ombudsman,” he said.

Several members of Congress agreed.

“This office should not have its investigative ability restricted, and its independence should not be compromised,” said Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., who testified that in 1999, Martin helped constituents in his state dealing with the Shattuck Chemical Superfund site.

Allard said Martin intervened on behalf of residents in Shattuck, Colo. who were fighting a settlement forged between Citigroup and the EPA for the clean up of toxic waste in a storage area there. Not only did Martin expose that the EPA was keeping pertinent documents on the waste site's condition away from public view, but he helped to get a new settlement on the table, Allard said. The new settlement is still under review by a federal district judge.

Allard is one of several co-sponsors of a bill that will lend additional authority to the ombudsman’s office within his original department of Solid Waste and Emergency Response.