EPA on Trial

Joel Bleifuss

Former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman interrupted investigations into her agency's endorsement of sewage sludge as fertilizer, according to the former chief investigator of the EPA's National Ombudsman Office.

For more than six years, Hugh Kaufman has been battling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), his employer for 37 years, with a whistleblower lawsuit. He has been aided by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a D.C.-based group that represents workers who expose corruption in agencies that oversee environmental quality and public health.

As the chief investigator for the EPA's National Ombudsman Office, Kaufman had a bird's eye view of how the public health and safety were routinely subordinated to corporate interests

We get people calling us all the time, but in this administration, more than ever,” says Paula Dinerstein, PEER senior counsel.

In June, Kaufman made his case before a Department of Labor administrative law judge, testifying that former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman closed down the agency’s National Ombudsman Office in an effort to stop investigations that Kaufman was conducting.

As the chief investigator for the agency’s National Ombudsman Office – which investigated public complaints about the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response – Kaufman had a bird’s eye view of how the public health and safety were routinely subordinated to corporate interests.

The Reagan, Bush I and Clinton EPAs, were all pretty much the same,” he says. The Bush administration took a bad EPA and made it worse.”

In February 2001, Kaufman alerted the Denver Post to the fact that Whitman had not recused herself from the negotiations involving a radioactive Superfund site in Denver in which she had a conflict of interest. (Superfund sites are contaminated areas that threaten public health and the environment.) Specifically, Kaufman noted that at the same time Whitman was negotiating the settlement with Citigroup, which owned the site, she held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in the company, and her husband, John, was the president of a Citigroup-owned company.

The EPA ultimately ruled that Citigroup would pay $7 million of the estimated $35 million cleanup costs, with the public picking up the rest. Such small reimbursements have been typical under the Bush administration’s EPA. In a 2007 report, the Center for Public Integrity found that from 2000 to 2006, reimbursements from companies for site cleanups fell by half compared to the previous six years.

At the June hearing, Kaufman also presented evidence that Whitman, by dismantling the National Ombudsman Office, interrupted his investigations into the agency’s endorsement of sewage sludge as fertilizer. In February, a federal district court in Georgia upheld farmers’ claims that the sludge containing heavy metals contaminated their farmland, writing:

The EPA’s unexplained rejection of Kaufman’s [public health] position … was not based on substantial evidence. … The administrative record contains evidence that senior EPA officials took extraordinary steps to quash scientific dissent, and any questioning of the EPA’s biosolids program. 

Whitman was also apparently upset at the ombudsman office’s investigation of the EPA’s lackluster response to 9/11.

In January 2002, Kaufman alerted the media that after 9/11, the EPA had put New Yorkers’ health at risk by failing to warn them of the danger to their health posed by the hazardous waste generated when the Twin Tower buildings collapsed. 

He told the New York Daily News: The evidence I have seen demonstrates that there is and was a substantial health risk that the EPA had documented in its testing. … Mrs. Whitman’s statement to the brave rescue workers and the people who live there was false.” 

On Jan. 9, 2002, Kaufman’s boss, National Ombudsman Robert Martin, announced he was going to open an investigation into the agency’s 9/11 response. Five days later, Whitman closed the ombudsman’s office and appropriated the 9/11-related files. Kaufman was eventually reassigned to a paper-pushing desk job.

Due to the possibility for appeals, the courts won’t resolve Kaufman’s case prior to Inauguration Day 2009. Consequently, according to a PEER press release, The fate of the National Ombudsman Office may be one of the early decisions facing the next administration seeking to reform a very troubled EPA.” 

In other words, Kaufman’s fate rests in the hands of the EPA administrator appointed by the next president.

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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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