Redefining and redeploying the Ohio EPA

Let me begin with a disclaimer.  I do not know the inner workings of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (abbreviated here as Ohio EPA, or just OEPA).

My knowledge of the Ohio EPA is mostly based on my eyes, my ears, and my ability to read.

Likewise, the proposal that follow are a response to what my eyes, ears, and reading ability tell me.

My ears heard something back in 2002 that made my eyes look a little more probingly at my surroundings.  While campaigning for state rep door-to-door, I spoke with a member of a family that owned and operated a construction and demolition debris dump.  He said that he understood that the OEPA needed to set some ground rules, inspect the dump from time to time, perhaps conduct a quick audit of reports that get sent to the OEPA, and even impose a dumping fee.  What he didn’t understand was why the OEPA didn’t investigate illegal dumping, where construction and demolition companies would try to avoid the fee collected at his dump by shedding their waste in some wooded or vacant area in an out-of-the-way place.

So I opened my eyes a little wider to take in my surroundings as I went from place to place.  Sure enough, in some-out-of the-way places, one can sometimes spot some rubbish that ought to be in a dump.

The construction and demolition dump is trying to provide a service.  That service is to have a place where such debris can be deposited where it poses less of a health and safety risk to the public.  To be sure, inspections may very well identify organic leachate or metal and inorganic leachate to exceed established parameters, but the dump is still a better repository for the debris than some other plot of ground is.

Sure, if you’re a neighbor of a megafarm and you believe the megafarm is contaminating runoff into surface streams because of improper handling of manure, you can report it to the EPA, and they’ll investigate.  They’ll investigate any number of companies.

But how do they investigate entities that are anonymous?  The landowner of the out-of-the-way plot of ground where debris was strewn may be just as perplexed and angered over the conditions he discovers as anybody else is.  The landowner may have no connections whatsoever to any construction or demolition companies, but he’s the one that will have to clean up that lot.

And, even if the land ownership is connected to a construction or demolition company, how long will the stuff sit there and leach hazardous materials into the ground before it is discovered?

Sure, a sheriff can gather evidence and a prosecutor can press charges, but does a sheriff even know what to look for in the first place?  And how can a sheriff assess the threat that an improperly discarded hazardous material might impose?  With cash-strapped counties cutting back on payroll, including sheriff deputies, what priorities will such investigations have?  If the OEPA is to protect Ohio’s environment, shouldn’t we widen the scope of their purview?

I’ve seen companies go out of business because they could not afford to meet all the requirements of the OEPA.  It could be said that the OEPA creates more brownfields than it cleans up.  I had an employer decide to get out of the gasoline station business because it just became too expensive.  You’ve probably seen some abandoned ones from time to time.  I wonder if those tanks are still in the ground.  The OEPA doesn’t want them there, but if no one can ante up the cash to take care of it, it’s possible they’re still there.

A family I knew from elementary school used to have greenhouses where they raised hydroponic tomatoes.  Now when I drive by, I see overgrown vegetation literally dismantling the greenhouses, as it pushes out panes of glass.  I asked my mom what happened to the greenhouses, because she knows the family, too.  The Ohio EPA wanted them to retrofit their greenhouses and the cost estimates turned out to be much more than they could manage.

For companies that only do demolition, the dumping fees may be the biggest expense they have to pay for, meaning that even labor costs can be cheaper than dumping fees.  Do you see the incentive for cheating?

On a smaller scale, what about littering?  It happens anonymously, too.  There’s supposed to be a $500 fine for it.  Yet, if I’m driving along U.S. Route 6 or State Route 2 between Huron and Toledo, I pass by state owned marshlands that have trash strewn amongst the reeds.  Funny how the state buys up all these lands for conservation, and then can’t keep them from getting contaminated, isn’t it?

It seems to me that dispatching inspectors from time to time to inspect and investigate out of OEPA headquarters or district offices is not the most effective way of dealing with these issues.  Also, having policy wonks at the OEPA headquarters is duplicative.  The federal EPA already has many policy wonks.  The OEPA also has lots of people performing management functions at headquarters in Columbus, as you can tell by the contact list for divisions and offices.  Can some of those be merged?

If you want to make contact with someone about a concern, you either have to describe it so that it’s easily categorized by a switchboard operator, and you wait to have your call transferred, or you can go to the OEPA keyword index at it’s website to see if your concern is handled by a division at headquarters, a district office, or a local health department.  I wonder, if your concern overlaps the the functions of more than one division, does that mean you have your call transferred to another division after you’ve already explained your concern to one division?  A lot of those phone numbers have a 614 area code on them.  Too bad you have to call someone in a distant ivory tower.

Regarding inspection and compliance, is it mostly comprised of stuff like identifying where limits of contaminants have been exceeded, which operating procedures aren’t being followed, which paperwork wasn’t submitted correctly, and what components of emergency plans are missing?  And if the inspection reveals some defects, what then?  Do they merely say “These items were in error.  Redouble your efforts to correct them.  We’ll be back for another inspection to see if they’ve been corrected,” and then take off back to their office in Columbus or to one of the 5 district offices?

I’ve heard that if I undertake a project that disturbs more than a half-acre of ground, that I have to get an EPA permit to do it.  I’ve seen vegetable gardens that are bigger than that, where the ground was initially tilled with a plow.  I can see how the soil could be carried by surface runoff into a stream under such conditions.  Does that mean the gardener must get an EPA permit?

Different soil types, the location of aquifers, the vegetation characteristics as surface runoff reaches streams . . . these are all site specific.  There are blanket regulations.  When inspections reveal items that need to be corrected, do they just hand the list over to the company they inspected, and then you’re on your own?

I was trying to navigate through the OEPA website to see where, if I were a small business owner, I could solicit some help in customizing my prevention efforts by having someone come out to the site, evaluating the soil types on various parts of the property, showing me which way the surface runoff drains, mapping the aquifer underground, and then guiding me on what to line any underground repositories with, what vegetation to plant where, if some of the terrain should be bulldozed to redirect surface runoff, but when I click on the tab for compliance issues, it seems to be mostly for helping small businesses navigate through all the paperwork, permitting, and inspections.    It’s as if navigating the red tape is 90% of compliance, and the other 10% is whether actual pollution is present or not.  I found a compliance page that turned out to be how legal penalties are applied.  It looked like there might be a link to information about how to get someone on site to offer recommendations on how to apply best practices to my specific plot of ground, but it turned out to be a list of phone numbers, and the webpage doesn’t exactly say they render that kind of assistance.  They just have broad headings, and I’m not sure about what falls under each heading.  Oh, it’s not one list of phone numbers.  I see two lists of phone numbers.  Are these redundancies? Which one do I call?  Is it a wild goose chase?

Sure, big corporations contract with developers, designers, and maybe even civil engineers who routinely know how to assess and adapt to a specific piece of ground.  They are likely to comply.  But what about the actions of others who anonymously cheat that the OEPA doesn’t collect a permit fee from?  How safe do you, as a member of the public, feel about only inspecting the entities that act the most responsibly?

Speaking of how safe you might feel, did you know that the Clean Ohio fund (funded with bonds, which equals state debt) doesn’t prioritize brownfield cleanup projects according to the magnitude of the hazard they pose to the public?  Nope.  The brownfield cleanup priorities are set by the developers.  The prime location properties they want to redevelop are the ones that get cleaned up.  Feel safe?

With all this in mind, I’d like to see the Ohio EPA decentralized.  We don’t need them in an office in Columbus shuffling all those papers or manipulating terabytes of data.  We don’t need to have seminars and workshops about how to navigate the OEPA red tape.  We need people in the field.  We need agents who see the same stuff I see.  We need agents that investigate the irresponsible entities that cheat on environmental regulations who don’t pay inspection and permit fees to the OEPA.

I’d like to see a small contingent of OEPA agents in every county, just like county agricultural extension agents.

Whether you are a farmer, a gardener, a landscaper who adds shrubs and flower beds to your customers’ lawns, or just a 4-H club member, you can contact the county ag extension office about all that stuff.  It’s a one-stop shop.  You don’t have to call a switchboard in Columbus and describe your problem to an operator who has to decide how she will route your call so that it ends up at the right person’s desk.  You just walk in to the county ag extension office, or call on the phone, and they’ll handle it, whatever challenge your green thumb might have run into.  If they have to consult with someone in order to respond to your concern, they’ll do that themselves.  You won’t have to do all that leg work and hang on the line while they transfer your call from one person to another to another.

So, if you were to walk into an OEPA office in your county to voice a concern, rather than them say, “Oh, the local health department handles that one.  You’ll have to talk to them.”  No.  I’d like the OEPA agent pick up the phone and call a designated contact at the local health department just in case there’s a very simple answer to the citizen’s query that can be stated in just a few sentences to save the citizen from doing that legwork.  If it turns out to be a more complex matter than that, the health department contact can say so, and THEN the OEPA makes the referral to the local health department.

Whatever the concern a citizen may have, whether it’s learning the permit process so that someone can start their own company, or whether it’s a matter of solid waste, or whether it’s a matter of drinking water quality, or whether you just want to know how to dispose of old paint and turpentine cans, I’d like to see an OEPA agent tackle the matter right then and there and provide the answers needed without having to reroute a citizen’s call.

The OEPA, more than just being an inspection bureaucracy, could actually be helpful to private individuals who can’t afford to hire a civil engineer to give them guidance about what would work for their specific property.  Instead, for a fee to cover the cost, an appointment could be made for an OEPA agent to come to the actual site, let the individual describe what they intend to use the property for, and then get some pointers from the OEPA agent about how to prevent pollution at that site.  It’s possible that some of the outlined tasks could be handled by the individual, while other tasks may require the individual to contract someone else more qualified and capable to handle it.  The OEPA agent could point those things out.  Then, based on the description of how the individual intends to use the land, the OEPA agent can give the individual a head’s up on what exactly the OEPA will be including on their inspection checklist.

The OEPA agents in the field could tackle more investigative type work to catch the irresponsible entities as well as inspect the responsible ones.  They could see who they might catch on a surveillance camera.  They might spot something that raises an eyebrow about a location that might indicate contamination, and then get a water sample, soil sample, etc.

With a few agents living and working in each county, they could see problems as they arise.  Someone dumped illegally onto a private undeveloped property?  When they spot it, maybe even during their morning commute, they’ll add that investigation to the office “to do” list. They will see and be able to act upon so much more when they live in the field than when they are merely dispatched from an office several counties away.

Give the OEPA authority to issue some of those $500 littering fines.  If they spot a stretch of property that appears to be littered frequently, they could set up cameras to catch the culprits in the act and then tip off sheriffs, prosecutors, etc., or set up a mechanism in-house to tackle the littering violations.

Please, no more wonks who think there should be another form to fill out and another unfunded mandate to pass along to business.  If someone can eliminate a few forms and spare us some of the more inconsequential mandates, then that would be useful.

Less managers and cubicle-dwelling bureaucrats, more front-line responders and enforcers.

The bottom line is that I’d like to see an OEPA that is more useful and more accessible to the public than they’ve been heretofore.  By redeploying OEPA agents, there’ll be a dimension of environmental protection added that has previously been missing.

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