Mr. Clean

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

In 1992, Denver residents living near the old Shattuck Chemical plant in south Denver were outraged when the EPA reversed its decision to haul 50,000 cubic yards of radioactive soil out of their neighborhood. Instead, the EPA mixed the soil with fly ash and concrete, then surrounded the one-story-high mound with a chain-link fence. "It's the only site in the country where we've left radioactive contaminants in place in a residential setting," says Martin. "That in itself drives an ombudsman review."

But it took considerable effort to get the ombudsman to the site at 1805 South Bannock. Over the years, a group of residents--"a bunch of ragtag amateurs," as Jack Unruh puts it--"have found what we consider some pretty egregious oversights." City and county scientists claim that, despite the EPA's containment efforts, the waste is leaking into the South Platte River; Mayor Wellington Webb has repeatedly insisted that the pile be removed. And last August, Denver voters approved a measure urging that Colorado's congressional representatives look into the EPA's remediation of the site.

Unruh first heard about the ombudsman a year ago from a Sierra Club member "who told me Bob was a good guy to have on your side." In her conversations with Martin regarding the arsenal, Sandra Jaquith mentioned Shattuck a few times, and the ombudsman was intrigued. In January he finally met with the Shattuck neighbors in Jaquith's living room and told them he would take the case--but urged them to get a member of Congress on board, too.

U.S. Senator Wayne Allard soon signed on. Allard was still steamed over a 1998 meeting regarding Shattuck held by Region VIII administrator William Yellowtail, who refused to take any questions from the public, remembers Allard spokesman Sean Conway. A newspaper photo of Yellowtail pointing his finger at the crowd "was a symbol for what these people had been through," Conway says. "For eight years they had been told to shut up and sit down."

Even after Region VIII promised to order an independent study of the site, "to our astonishment, nothing would happen. They were interested in preserving the status quo and defending the agency's actions ten years ago," he adds. "People have totally lost confidence in the regional office."

On March 9, Allard placed a "hold" on the Senate confirmation of acting assistant administrator Timothy Fields--Martin's immediate boss in the EPA hierarchy--whose official government appointment was pending before Congress. The following day, Allard received word that Fields was coming to Denver to investigate remedies for Shattuck and had asked Martin to sort out the EPA's past actions at the site. Fields has promised a final decision on Shattuck's future by this fall--and Allard is holding his Senate confirmation hostage until then.

"The ombudsman's report is going to tell us how we got here," says Conway. "There could be two meaningful outcomes: The waste could be removed, and this could be a lesson for the EPA, at least in Region VIII, on how not to proceed on things."

The involvement of Martin, who can dig through confidential files and summon witnesses from the deepest reaches of the EPA, has given the Shattuck neighbors new energy. "If we hadn't raised hell, nothing would have happened," says Unruh. "We've been in remission from hell-raising for a little bit, and what we see now is that people are retrenching. A business that doesn't want an internal audit probably needs one."

In December the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit government watchdog group, honored Martin with its annual "Beyond the Headlines Award." Martin got a crystal statue, a T-shirt and a rare moment in the Washington spotlight.

In its announcement of the event, POGO called the ombudsman a "national treasure" for "his history of placing public interest over private gain. We are proud to recognize a federal worker who is virtually unknown in Washington yet is so wildly popular outside the Beltway."

Although Martin won't give specifics about the number of times he's called in the FBI, the EPA's inspector general or the agency's criminal investigation division to look at possible lawbreaking, POGO estimates that 80 percent of Martin's major cases have resulted in criminal referrals.

POGO executive director Danielle Brian saw Martin's work for herself earlier this year at a town meeting in Uniontown, Ohio--a longtime environmental war zone and home to a fifteen-year-old Superfund site. In the 1970s and early '80s, Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone, B.F. Goodrich and GenCorp had dumped liquid and solid wastes, some of them radioactive, into a thirty-acre landfill there. When the EPA recently proposed modifying its 1989 cleanup plan for the site--which would save the tire giants an estimated $12.3 million--furious citizens called for the ombudsman.

Everyone from mayors, civic leaders, church pastors, members of homeowners' associations and individual citizens showed up at the Uniontown meeting, Martin recalls. One woman presented a formal letter from her father warning of the dangers of local radiation contamination. Years ago, he'd worked with legendary physicist Robert Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project. "No one knew this man was out there, and his credentials, of course, were impeccable," says Martin.

"Many of the people at these public hearings speak very eloquently," he says. "It's often really"--Martin searches for the word--"profound. It's democracy at work."

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