Democrats seek probe of Ohio environmental agency

JULIE CARR SMYTH AP Statehouse Correspondent Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Four Democratic lawmakers asked the state watchdog Tuesday to investigate allegations of political pressure at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Their letter to Inspector General Randall Meyer seeks review of pollution-discharge permits for 13 coal facilities that have expired since Gov. John Kasich took office in 2011. The Associated Press reported the expirations last week.

State Reps. Debbie Phillips, John Carney, Nickie Antonio and Robert Hagan also asked Meyer to look into a pro-drilling communications plan developed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

"Such an overtly political effort conducted at taxpayer expense is surely not why Ohioans elect constitutional officers," the lawmakers wrote. "The fact that the Ohio EPA is listed as a partner is disturbing, and could be indicative of deeper political motivations at the state agency."

A spokesman for Meyer did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.

The legislators asked Meyer to determine if the administration and regulators are exerting inappropriate political pressure.

"Instead of enforcing laws that balance the public's interest in health, safety and economic growth with industry profits, news reports have indicated that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may selectively act on regulations and personnel matters that prove critical to upholding state and federal laws," they wrote.

Ohio EPA spokesman Chris Abbruzzese said the agency is working closely with the U.S. EPA and the coal industry on the permit renewals, even as expired permits remain legal, protective and enforceable.

"It is true the coal industry is under heightened scrutiny nationwide and it is also true coal provides Ohio with an abundant and cost effective supply of energy ...," he said in an email. "Our efforts to move forward and issue these renewed permits will not be undermined by critics with a blatant, partisan agenda."

A veteran Ohio EPA official alleged last year that his retirement was forced under pressure from coal industry interests. The official, George Elmaraghy, said in an email to his staff that companies sought illegally weak permits. The companies and the agency have denied his claims.

The Sierra Club and Ohio Environmental Council asked for a federal review of the expired permits Monday.

ODNR has previously said the communications plan mentioned in the letter -- which was intended to promote drilling under state lands -- was never implemented. Hagan and Antonio were listed by name in the memo as adversaries of the administration.