Pending Legal Action to Resurrect EPA Ombudsman Function Shuttered in 2002
Washington, DC — As the 10th anniversary of the attacks nears and 9/11 First Responders experience increasingly severe health effects from their heroism, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) demands that the Obama administration resurrect the Ombudsman role at the Environmental Protection Agency. A review by the National Ombudsman in 2002 predicted these health effects among First Responders and others in Lower Manhattan after it investigated the EPA response to the attacks.
The EPA abolished its National Ombudsman in the middle of its investigation of charges that the EPA lied to the public and did not perform their mandatory duties to protect the public after the attacks. The Ombudsman acted as a neutral party to resolve citizen and industry complaints about EPA’s performance.
“With the Ombudsman abolished, the EPA is not accountable for malfeasance,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein who is co-counsel with Regina Markey at Beins, Axelrod, PC in an ongoing environmental whistleblower action filed by former Ombudsman Chief Investigator Hugh Kaufman which seeks to restore the office. “A viable Ombudsman function at the EPA is the only way to assure that the public can make EPA answer questions.”
Five EPA press releases issued within ten days of September 11, 2001 reassured the public that the air was safe, prompting residents, office workers and children to return to Lower Manhattan. A September 18, 2001 EPA press release, for instance, quoted Administrator Christie Whitman saying “Given the scope of the tragedy last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, DC that their air is safe to breath [sic] and the water is safe to drink.”
After those statements, under court protection against threats by Administrator Whitman to terminate his office, National Ombudsman Robert Martin managed to hold two hearings in Lower Manhattan to take testimony from witnesses and experts in response to charges that EPA’s 9/11 response was imprudent, if not outright dishonest. As a result of those hearings, the Ombudsman found that –
- EPA officials knew the collapse of the World Trade Towers filled Lower Manhattan with carcinogenic asbestos-containing-materials, but refused to follow proper rules on protecting the public from it; and
- EPA’s false assurances about the safety of outdoor and indoor air in Lower Manhattan insulated insurance companies from having to pay claims that arose out of exposure to released toxins.
After the Ombudsman made these findings, in April of 2002, EPA prevailed in court and terminated the office, locking Martin out of his office while he was testifying about the EPA response before the New York State legislature. In 2003, EPA’s own Office of Inspector General confirmed the Ombudsman’s public pronouncements. The Inspector General also found that the Bush White House skewed EPA press releases and that “the desire to reopen Wall Street” factored into EPA statements.
Chief Investigator Kaufman was shunted off to an inconsequential job but he kept up his legal fight to restore the Ombudsman office through the Bush years. After the Obama administration came in, it continued to resist Mr. Kaufman’s action. The case is currently before the Department of Labor Administrative Review Board.