Mr. Clean

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

Much of the ombudsman's work focuses on NPL sites, locations so contaminated they've been assigned to the EPA's 1,200-member National Priorities List. (The federal "Superfund"--whose taxing authority expired in 1995--is a trust fund set up to pay for emergency cleanups or abandoned NPL sites where the government, not the long-gone polluter, is forced to pick up the tab.) But the ombudsman's authority "is not limited to NPL or Superfund cases," Kaufman explains. "It can concern anyplace there's contamination of the land and where things may not be working right."

When it comes to regulating businesses that are operating today, the EPA can force waste producers to play by the rules. But its after-the-fact Superfund role is very different. Whenever possible, the federal government tries to get the polluter to clean up a contaminated site; if the EPA has to do the physical work, it will bill the polluter three times its actual cost. Although this system encourages violators to tidy up their own toxic messes, it often means that they, and not the people who live near the Superfund site, call a majority of the shots. The ombudsman position was designed to give the citizen-neighbors a little more say in the matter.

Established by Congress in 1986 as part of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), yet another solid waste cleanup program, the ombudsman's office was made permanent several years later. Martin, who was recruited for the position by an EPA higher-up, is the second person to hold the job.

"The classical model of ombudsman goes back three, four hundred years ago in Sweden, where you had an official who literally would stand between the king and the governed," Martin says. According to that model, the ombudsman "can investigate any complaint that a person brings to them," says Martin. "I have tried to follow that as much as possible.

"A true ombudsman has to be independent. He can't be told not to look into something, not to think that, not to say that--because that stifles the function," he says. "That's really the first hallmark of a classical ombudsman: independence from the entity you've been charged to look at."

Martin's solid-waste jurisdiction covers landfills, waste facilities, underground storage tanks, "a whole host of things," says Kaufman. "Superfund itself is massive. People live on land, which means what EPA does or doesn't do affects substantial numbers of taxpayers and elected officials. It's not just as simple as, say, limiting [emissions from] automobiles or power plants, or limiting discharges down a river. Land is where Mom and Dad and the kids live. And it's because of that that it cries out for a traditional ombudsman."

Although the ombudsman has no actual power, he can order investigations and make recommendations for change that have real clout. While his policy recommendations usually stay with the suits in Washington, Martin sends to the local EPA administrators his "operational" proposals, such as "dig here, put a monitor there, do more sampling, take another look. I'm no scientist," says Martin, "but I can question the weight or the value of the scientific data overall if I think things haven't been done the way I think they should have been done."

As a result of his work, Martin has persuaded the EPA to reverse decisions, reopen cases, shut down incinerators and evacuate entire subdivisions. "Is he beloved and admired within EPA? I would say not," says Joel Hirschhorn, a private environmental consultant who works for grassroots groups across the country and has crossed paths with Martin at a half-dozen Superfund sites. "I would say he's more 'tolerated' within the agency. Let's face it, people with the power in government agencies don't like people like Bob, because their job is to prevent the people in power from doing whatever they want. But does he have influence? Yes."

Martin's first test on the job was in an industrial area just outside Houston, where Monsanto and other chemical companies had dumped wastes for years and a 677-home subdivision had sprung up in the late 1970s. The EPA declared the waste dump a Superfund site in 1983. Marie Flickinger, a local resident with a high school diploma who runs a weekly newspaper called the South Belt-Ellington Leader, pleaded with regional officials for years to look at tumor-plagued dogs and black goo that was seeping up from the driveways of nearby homes. Eleven of the thirteen babies born in the subdivision one year suffered from severe birth defects.

Flickinger and other residents did not like the EPA's planned "remedy" for the site that called for drudging up all the wastes and burning them near the residential area. And so Flickinger lobbied for a visit from the newly appointed ombudsman; at first, when the EPA refused to pay Martin's airfare, she offered a ticket out of her own pocket. She later met Martin and another EPA official at a conference in Dallas. They promised a two-page report on the Brio Superfund site within a week--but the final report actually took three months and numbered more than thirty pages. "They agreed with me on nearly all the issues," says Flickinger.

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