Bill would make EPA ombudsman independent

The EPA's ombudsman would get expanded power to conduct independent reviews of federal cleanup decisions in the Superfund program under legislation outlined today by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

The bill-whose sponsors include Florida GOP Reps. Jeff Miller and Michael Bilirakis, and Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo.-would formally authorize the Office of Ombudsman and separate its funding and staffing decisions from EPA, making it an independent entity operating within the agency. Bilirakis and Crapo sponsored similar legislation during the 107th Congress. The Senate passed its bill, but the House measure failed.

The measure is aimed at responding to citizen groups that complain about EPA officials frustrating ombudsman investigations of agency decisions. Those complaints have dogged Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Crapo has been a longtime proponent of boosting the ombudsman's authority because of continued community complaints about the federal cleanup at the Bunkerhill Superfund site in Idaho.

Nadler, meanwhile, became involved in the spat in response to EPA's handling of the cleanup of contaminated waste created by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City. The World Trade Center cleanup became a political nightmare for EPA, which initially brushed aside community concerns that airborne dust contained asbestos. At Nadler's request, the ombudsman intervened. The agency subsequently reversed its stance and offered assistance to residents near the trade center site.

Both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations have viewed the ombudsman as a thorn in their side, with EPA officials complaining privately that whistleblowers and communities manipulate the office to embarrass the agency.

EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman in 2001 moved the ombudsman out of the Superfund office and into the agency's Office of Inspector General, claiming the move would free up investigators to conduct impartial inquiries. But then-Ombudsman Bob Martin, as well as his congressional allies, balked at the reorganization, charging Whitman was using the move to silence critics. Martin ultimately resigned in protest.