Mr. Clean

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

At this point, the ombudsman officially took the case. Ultimately, the EPA decided to reverse its remedy plan. Flickinger credits Martin with convincing the agency to dismantle the incinerator before it burned a single ounce of toxins. Instead the EPA decided to put a deep cap over the site and build a wall around it; the 677 homes and an $8 million elementary school were razed by the developer and put in a landfill.

"I think he cut his teeth on Brio," Flickinger says of Martin. "I think his eyes were opened to the fact that everything the agency's done is not necessarily for the community.

"Tell your people in Denver these guys are the only hope in the system," Flickinger says. "There is no one else. Where Bob Martin's concerned, he is the purest-hearted person I have ever met in my life besides my father. You cannot have a stronger advocate than that man."

The central California town of McFarland is home to rich cotton, alfalfa and peach-tree fields, hundreds of illiterate farm workers and a well-documented cancer cluster. "We had been told to accept the deaths," says Marta Salinas, a local activist who for sixteen years has tried to draw attention to the area's pesticide-laden waste dumps and farm fields sprayed nine months out of the year.

After the ombudsman heard about McFarland's rate of rampant birth defects, stillbirths and brain tumors in teenagers and young adults, Martin got involved. "He's the first person to really go house-to-house to talk with Mexicanos," says Salinas. "He hugged the kids and told the parents he wished he could have been there from the beginning." Since then, Martin has overridden furious county and regional officials and ordered extensive tests on soil and wells used for drinking water.

The EPA divides its national turf into ten regions; Denver is the headquarters for Region VIII, which covers Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Utah. Unlike the regions' head honchos, the ombudsman can summon EPA experts from any part of the country to reassess a project. When citizens in Arkansas cried foul about an incinerator burning toxins nearby, Martin called in an incineration expert from Seattle. "And she said yeah, there are problems, and we need standard operating procedures," he says. The ombudsman, citizens and regional staff then sat back down at the table and hammered out a new solution.

Likewise, residents near Times Beach, Missouri, were outraged over an incinerator built there to burn dioxin-contaminated dirt and debris from 27 sites throughout the state. "The technology was supposed to be state-of-the-art, to burn 99.999 percent" of the wastes, says Martin. "But the citizens were concerned that things were not okay."

Activists feared that dioxin, once a common by-product of manufacturing that has been linked to cancer and disorders of the reproductive and immune systems, was being released into the air. Test samples had been lost, misplaced or poorly analyzed, they charged. "There was a history of deception there," says Steve Taylor of the Times Beach Action Group. "We believe there was fraud involved."

"To me, that anecdotal information didn't invalidate the test results, but it took away the weight of credibility," Martin explains. "There was a real trust issue between the community and the [EPA] region." So in December 1996, the ombudsman pulled in a special "emergency response team" to retest the soil. "They did find more dioxin than the region thought was present, but ultimately they didn't find that level of dioxin had a health impact." In other words, the EPA's original test results were not 100 percent accurate--but conditions also were not as bad as citizens feared. "The truth lay somewhere in the middle," Martin says.

By the time those tests were completed, however, the incinerator's work was nearly done. In June 1997, the last wastes were burned at Times Beach. "We only wish that Martin had gotten there sooner," Taylor says.

In the past, complaints made their way to Martin's desk via Carol Browner, the EPA's top official. But increasingly, citizens and legislators are contacting the ombudsman's office directly.

Martin himself selects the sites he wants to investigate, first by dividing complaints into matters and cases. The less-complicated "matters" are usually forwarded to a regional EPA office or resolved in Washington within a few days. "Cases" are far more complex and require an in-depth investigation by the ombudsman himself.

Kaufman calls them "the screamers."
"Right now we probably have about two dozen significant cases, which include Shattuck and RMA," says Martin. "Cases are much more akin to Rocky Mountain Arsenal, where you've got lots of people who've been trying to bring closure to the place for years and years, and obviously they're not even close."

When alerted to a screamer, Martin contacts the regional field office to get the EPA's side of the story. Then he might launch a "preliminary assessment": talking with local residents, looking at the administrative record and conducting hearings. Only after that does he decide whether to open a full-scale investigation.

"It's really a judgment call," says Martin. "Here at RMA, we started out with a preliminary review. I got into it a few months and decided it was a full ombudsman case. It couldn't be anything else."

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