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Mr. Clean

Superfund ombudsman Robert Martin is either a white knight -- or an EPA whitewash.

Superfund was created to clean up toxic messes. Robert J. Martin's job is to clean up Superfund's messes.

For now, though, he's just a fly on the wall.
In a meeting room in the Commerce City town hall, Martin stays to the back, leans, paces, whispers something into his investigator's ear. In a faceoff scheduled for two hours that has already dragged on for four, irate citizens are pelting local Environmental Protection Agency officials with polite but pointed questions about the agency's work at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, an ugly polluted site just northeast of Denver. Martin doesn't say a word, just tries to blend in with the furniture. Still, it's impossible to forget he's the most powerful man in the room.

Martin is the EPA's national ombudsman for its Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, the department concerned with land-based pollution. Six years into the role, he's developed a reputation for fairness, diplomacy and a serenely ruthless determination to get to the bottom of the EPA's most notorious quagmires. In the process, Martin has launched investigations, alerted the FBI to possible criminal chicanery and orchestrated peace talks between the EPA and angry taxpayers. His enigmatic bearing inspires awe in the citizens' groups that--frustrated by and distrustful of the same federal agency that signs Martin's paycheck--have recruited him to their communities to find out if the EPA is doing its job.

Denver is seeing a lot of Martin these days. The ombudsman is investigating two highly contentious local sites: Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA), where the U.S. Army manufactured nerve gas and other chemical weapons during World War II and where Shell Oil later produced toxic pesticides; and Shattuck, a radioactive waste pile buried smack-dab in a working-class residential area. He's also ordered a preliminary investigation into the EPA's plan to use sludge from the former Lowry Landfill as farm fertilizer and has been asked by an ombudsman from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to look into cleanup efforts at Air Force Plant PJKS near Waterton Canyon, where rocket-engine testing left a legacy of hydrazine and other chemical pollutants.

"I'm getting really busy now in Colorado," says Martin, in typically understated fashion.

Born in Washington State, Martin is a member of the Makah Indian tribe, which has been in the news recently for its attempts to resume traditional whale hunting in the Pacific. With a father in New York City, "I grew up on both coasts," he says. Martin studied political science at Gordon College in Massachusetts and holds a law degree from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In the 1980s he ran the D.C. office of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a coalition of tribes that own fuel-rich lands, and provided legal representation for Indians on environmental issues. More recently, he ran his own cleanup firm, Nootka Environmental Systems. Today the father of three works out of a narrow office in EPA headquarters in downtown Washington--when he's not on the road.

Like the straight man and his sidekick, Martin and his jovial EPA investigator, Hugh B. Kaufman, jet around the country to meet with the EPA's regional top brass, conduct hearings and occasionally go door-to-door to talk with neighbors living closest to the EPA's most controversial cleanups. When Jack Unruh and other members of Clean-It!, the Shattuck-area residents' group, met Martin and Kaufman for the first time, "it was the most satisfying bit of live theater I've been involved in for a long time," says Unruh. Martin arrived for the meeting wearing his trademark black ponytail and appearing "a little rumpled, like he'd been involved in some airline travel," Unruh adds. Kaufman, on the other hand, "pretty much looked impeccable" with his close-cropped silver beard, Brooks Brothers suspenders, gleaming rings and tie clip. "A Beltway-lawyer kind of guy," says Unruh, "and then he dips into a little chaw."

Kaufman, never far from his brown tin of Copenhagen chewing tobacco, is a loquacious quote machine. The senior engineer and principal investigator has been with EPA since the agency was founded by Congress 29 years ago. A co-author of the EPA's landmark waste-disposal laws, Kaufman blew the whistle on his own agency in the Carter years when he testified before Congress regarding Love Canal, and later blew the cover on Reagan administration efforts to dismantle the Superfund program. (EPA assistant administrator Rita Lavelle had him tailed by investigators; after she lied to a congressional committee about it, she was promptly canned.) For years Kaufman volunteered his off-duty hours to little communities fighting big environmental problems. Now he works with Martin at the ombudsman's request--which is to say, most of the time.

Martin doesn't take notes; instead he files the highly complex chemical and administrative details of the country's most disputed waste sites somewhere in his head. As Denver residents run through the history of yet another controversial EPA cleanup, the ombudsman and his colleague occasionally exchange loaded, knowing glances--the kind that say, "Oh, brother."

Every year Martin and his four-person staff field more than 4,000 complaints on their toll-free line. "That doesn't include the mailbags" of letters asking the ombudsman to look into toxic waste sites or EPA cleanup efforts, notes Martin. The office has a modest annual budget of $100,000 to conduct investigations or technical reviews--and "there's no shortage of problems to go around," he adds.

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