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FEATURE Whacked By Whitman BY LOUIS DUBOSE Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitmanwhom Secretary of State Colin Powell once called “wind dummy” because of the way she gets blown around at cabinet meetings finally got her feet on the ground and made a decision. She got rid of Bob Martin. For more than a decade, Martin served as the EPA’s independent ombudsman, the public’s last line of defense against bad decisions made by the nation’s environmental bureaucracy. It was Martin who in 1992 put a halt to the EPA’s plan to incinerate 245,000 tons of toxic sludge that Monsanto and others had left in a pit situated between an elementary school and a residential subdivision, about 20 miles from downtown Houston.The EPA was just 10 days away from beginning incineration at the area, known as the Brio Site, when Martin’s reportwhich revealed, among other alarming findings, that the agency had not even been aware that mercury was in the pitsshut the project down. There will be no more last-minute rescues by Martin. A months-long effort by Whitman to rein in the power of the ombudsman ended in an April 22 raid on Martin’s offices, followed closely by his resignation. This may be more than a case of an industry-friendly Republican appointee undercutting the EPA’s enforcement authority, however. At the time of his departure, Martin was investigating a Superfund site owned by a company closely connected to John Whitman, Christine Todd Whitman’s husband. For months Whitman had been trying to muscle Martin into the inspector general’s office, an investigating arm of the agency that answers to Whitman herself. But in January he went to court and got a temporary restrain ing order to keep him out of Whitman’s line of authority. In April, the clock ran out. Federal district Judge Richard Roberts refused to extend the order, ruling that Martin hadn’t exhausted all his administrative remedies. As Martin returned to the administrative process, Whitman made her move. While Martin was out of town on agency business on April 22, Whitman had her inspector general seize Martin’s files and computers and remove the telephones from his office. To ensure that Martin couldn’t soldier on with his cell phone and laptop, the raiders from the IG’s office changed the locks on the ombudsman’s office door. Rather than report as ordered to his new assignment inspector general’s officehe submitted his letter of resignation. Now under the supervision of the inspector general, the ombudsman’s office no longer has its independence. That means the new ombudsman will not control the office’s budget and staff. The moral authority derived from that independence will be gone as well. Martin said that he simply could not surrender the independence of the office. \(“Never, never, that, so they had to resort to a bold power move.” Martin is a Makah Indian from Washington State, hired by the EPA at the end of the Bush I Administration. Early on, he got a sense of how the agency worked, Martin said last month in an interview at a restaurant close to the EPA offices in Washington, D.C. Two weeks into his job, he was in Pennsylvania responding to complaints about an EPA cleanup. He was disturbed by the agency’s lack of concern for the local community “I used to think that the government mistreated only Indians,” he said at the time. “I now know they mistreat all Americans.” The day after that line made the papers, Martin was visited by an EPA official who handed him a letter of retraction to sign. “I told him that was exactly what I said. I can’t retract it.” His refusal to sign the letter was a small gesture. But it reaffirmed the independence of the ombudsman’s office, which Congress established in 1985. “There are things you can do when you have power,” Martin’s longtime investigator Hugh Kaufman said, “but you don’t do them because of the harm they can cause a year, two years, or five years down the line.” Kaufman has been an EPA employee since Richard Nixon was president, and his whistleblowing while Ronald Reagan tried to dismantle the Superfund program sent one EPA official to jail. According to Kaufman,Whitman’s restructuring of the ombudsman’s office is precisely the sort of act a public official with power canbut shouldn’tdo. The federal law that established the Superfund also established that once the EPA approves a clean-up plan for a contaminated site, the plan cannot be challenged for 10 years. “It’s one of the very rare instances in this country where a decision is not subject to judicial review,” Kaufman explained. The sole lever on the process isor wasthe independent office of the national ombudsman. For that reason, the constituent service calls the ombudsman answers are often from Congressmen and senators who realize they cannot alter the course of a clean-up plan gone bad. Conservative bete noir Helen Chenoweth, then a Congresswoman from Idaho, called Martin into that state after it became evident that an EPA clean-up of a mine site was doing more harm than good. It was Wayne Allard, the Republican U.S. Senator from Colorado, who contacted Martin about the Shattuck Superfund sitethe clean-up he was investigating when Whitman seized his files. 8 THE MX OBSERVER 5/24/02