Mr. Clean

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

"These are not a bunch of screaming-meemie 1960s hippies," adds Kaufman. "These are the folks next door."

But it's not easy for those folks to find the ombudsman. The agency certainly doesn't publicize Martin's job. "It's the best-kept secret in the federal government," says Jaquith, who adds that most of her citizen-activist colleagues around the country have never heard of the ombudsman. "I suspect it's because he's effective."

In early 1997 the EPA established a "regional ombudsman" program, which consultant Hirschhorn and other critics view as the agency's attempt to dilute Martin's power. But Region VIII's ombudsman, Wendy Thomi, says she spends only 20 percent of her time in that role; the other 80 percent is devoted to her job as a community-involvement coordinator for specific Superfund sites, where she works with "the whole universe of stakeholders." In her one year as ombudsman, she's dealt with only a handful of citizen complaints.

"The EPA has wasted a lot of money to create this system of regional ombudsmen who are actually supposed to prevent people from going to Bob Martin," says Hirschhorn. The agency's own research has found that Superfund cleanups have better outcomes when citizens are involved in the process, he notes, yet only about 20 percent of Superfund sites actually have an organized community group working with the agency.

And sometimes the EPA seems to discourage citizen involvement. "A whole lot of people cried foul," recalls Jaquith, when they received a memo from Washington in February 1998 stating that citizens could no longer contact Martin directly. Fields, Martin's boss, announced that complaints would have to go first to the regional ombudsman, who would refer them to the regional administrator, who then would decide whether to send them to Martin. Fields squelched the idea after citizens pointed out the conflict of interest; he later sent out a draft memo stating that while Martin could select his own cases, Fields would decide whether or not they would be funded. Again, activists protested; Fields never sent out a formal version of the note.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), met Martin for the first time at his POGO award ceremony. A short time later, PEER asked the ombudsman to look at the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, Rhode Island, after citizens complained the EPA regional administrator was sitting on alarming statistics about dioxin contamination in the river. Martin took the case.

"Unlike the inspector general's office, he gives you the impression that he's really looking into a case and keeps you actively informed," says Ruch. "What little I know of him is very refreshing."

While Martin investigates the Shattuck and arsenal cases, the EPA has invited him to borrow some office space in its skyscraper headquarters on 18th Street--but the ombudsman hasn't yet accepted the offer. He'd rather work from the grassroots up, holding meetings in citizens' homes or civic buildings. "I think it's important to be right there, where the people are," he says.

One of the job's satisfactions is "to literally go to the ground with people and hear them out, truly listen. There is a certain closure to that," he says. "As corny as it sounds, it's a privilege to work with these really good people, like Sandy [Jaquith] and Rick [Warner], who volunteer their lives to help protect fellow citizens' lives.

The arsenal was Colorado's first EPA ombudsman case, and the local office has "been very supportive," Kaufman says diplomatically. But EPA reaction in the field hasn't always been that way. "It's been a mixed record," he adds. "In the past, it was more, 'Problem? No, we don't have a problem.' But that's changing."

Over the coming year, the ombudsman expects to study half a dozen major issues involving the former munitions site. "But you know, that's not the end," Martin says. "I can have continuing jurisdiction. The people who live here will have other issues, and I can continue to look at those."

Because of the independent nature of Martin's work, Laura Williams, the EPA's project manager at the arsenal, says she's "pretty much in the dark--and I think that pretty much goes for the whole region. Maybe it's a little frustrating because we both work for EPA and people ask me what he's up to. I'm not able to be as helpful as I would like to be."

Williams, who oversees the day-to-day remediation work carried out on the site, says she's met twice with Martin: when he first came on board in Denver and "outlined the process" of a typical investigation, and again when he requested an impromptu meeting with her while he was taking a tour of the arsenal. She learned that he would attend the January citizens' meeting on the EPA's risk-assessment study "about four hours before the meeting, when his plane touched down at the airport." Still, she adds, "if he finds something, I want to get it fixed. I'm seeing it as a benefit to the project, if it helps us get things fixed."

Jim Hanley, a regional EPA veteran who became the agency's project manager at Shattuck only six months ago, says he has yet to work with the ombudsman. Citizens' groups have high praise for Hanley's communication skills, but "even though I'm a fresh person, I'm still a regional person," Hanley says. "I'm glad that the system has worked for citizens who now have an impartial sort of intervener. In no way does it hamper or hinder us. It's just another pair of hands to help us out."

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