Thursday, December 20, 2001

Idaho

Investigator no stranger to hot seat
Whistleblower has made career of annoying EPA

Benjamin Shors
Staff writer

Coeur d'Alene _ For most government employees, the memos from department heads at the Environmental Protection Agency would have had a chilling effect.

They requested that Hugh Kaufman, the outspoken internal investigator of the EPA, prove his claims that the government covered up and stonewalled reports of EPA misconduct in the Silver Valley.

Kaufman, who investigated toxic waste in Love Canal in the 1970s and sent the agency's deputy administrator to prison in the early 1980s, q
uickly replied.

"Since ... the Office of the Inspector General cannot investigate themselves because of conflict of interest, and you are asking me to be a party to this illegal act, I have no choice but to defer," Kaufman wrote Wednesday in a memo to agency heads.

"In the future, please do not instruct me to perform illegal acts in carrying out my duties at the Environmental Protection Agency."

It was a characteristically bold statement from Kaufman, 59, an EPA whistleblower who has been the single most influential internal critic of the agency during his 31-year career.

But it comes at a perilous time for Kaufman and his supporters, who fear that a move by Administrator Christie Whitman will do something that lawsuits and agency heads have failed to do for three decades: silence Kaufman.

"I don't know of any other person in EPA who received so much attention from officials trying to get rid of him," said Lois Gibbs, who led protests over a toxic waste dump in Love Canal, N.Y., that led to the start of the Superfund program. "He comes with incredible power, in part because EPA fears him."

Kaufman and EPA Ombudsman Robert Martin have annoyed agency officials but won the support of residents near Superfund sites across the country who praise them for scrutinizing EPA cleanups.

This week, Kaufman detailed a litany of EPA errors at the Bunker Hill Superfund site, from fraud to harassment and endangering public health. Citing findings by Martin -- which were released Wednesday -- Kaufman said EPA used "bad science" and botched its cleanup of mining waste at the Bunker Hill Superfund site near Kellogg.

EPA officials in Seattle said Kaufman was digging up decades-old issues that had been resolved years ago.

"It drives people absolutely up the wall, and that's his intent I'm sure," said spokesman Bill Dunbar, who called Kaufman's accusations "outrageous.

"This is one of the original whistleblowers," Dunbar said. "Once you've reached that status, you can say and do just about anything you want with impunity. And he's demonstrated that."

Kaufman and Martin plan to release preliminary findings of 23 other investigations into EPA misconduct across the country.

They hope to finish the work before January, when the ombudsman's office will be officially moved under the control of the inspector general -- a move Martin and Kaufman said will "effectively dissolve" the office.

Martin and Kaufman filed complaints Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Labor protesting the move.

"Whitman is moving as fast as she can to kill the ombudsman," Kaufman said.

Kaufman called Whitman "a more-refined Rita Lavelle," referring to the high-ranking EPA official who spent several months in jail for lying to Congress in the early 1980s.

Kaufman said Whitman moved the office after a Colorado investigation into EPA mistakes threatened her husband's financial dealings.

Kaufman rose to national attention during an EPA upheaval in 1983 that led to the firing of Lavelle and charged members of the Reagan administration with trying to undermine the Superfund program to help wealthy Republican contributors.

While Kaufman never shied from public comment, he gained protection from a 1983 settlement with EPA officials over charges that they harassed and sought to discredit him. A Labor Department investigation found that Lavelle and EPA officials had wrongfully investigated Kaufman, following and photographing him and his wife.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, as Kaufman continually upset agency leaders, he won respect and support from residents across the country.

In Nora, Neb., where he successfully helped citizens fight a proposed radioactive waste site, he was elected to the tiny town's village board.

In Florida, a woman who asked Kaufman to investigate EPA action has filed a suit in federal court to stop Whitman from moving the ombudsman's office.

In the Silver Valley, Kaufman and Martin quickly won support with their frank criticism of EPA actions and willingness to hear citizen concerns.

"When you're 20 years into this cleanup, it's time somebody started talking straight," said activist Barbara Miller, who asked the national ombudsman to investigate lead cleanup levels at Bunker Hill.

Kaufman, citing Martin's report, raised EPA hackles this week with his blunt criticism of cleanup efforts in North Idaho.

Among other findings, Martin's report said that EPA built a hazardous waste landfill along the South Fork of the Coeur d'Alene River that lacked a bottom lining -- a violation of federal law.

The report said EPA deceived the public about the extent of the cleanup in North Idaho and failed to comply with its own cleanup laws.

Kaufman also said EPA's inspector general ignored his reports of fraud and abuse perpetrated by EPA officials on Bob Hopper, owner of the New Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg.

A spokeswoman for the inspector general said the office never received the reports.

Kaufman said the inspector general's office -- the office that would oversee the national ombudsman office under Whitman's decision -- repeatedly covered up evidence of EPA mistakes.

Congressional leaders continue to call for more independence for the ombudsman.

"I want to see EPA restructured so that the ombudsman is structurally independent, with its own budget and personnel," said Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who is sponsoring legislation to give the ombudsman complete independence.

Crapo praised Martin and Kaufman's work in the Silver Valley.

"He has performed very well in those investigations that I've seen in bringing an independent view to the EPA's work," Crapo said.

EPA officials -- most of whom decline to discuss Kaufman publicly -- say Kaufman has fallen in love with the spotlight, playing up EPA mistakes to the media.

Kaufman said Superfund, which he helped start in 1976, has functioned well across the country at sites where EPA workers followed their own rules.

But he said his role as an EPA critic is vital in improving Superfund.

"There are more cases where Superfund worked right than where it has not," Kaufman said. "We only get brought into cases where it's broken."

For Kaufman, the criticism is a natural part of his job, and he vows "EPA can't silence me.

"You can't keep things on the straight and narrow without having to fight."

Benjamin Shors can be reached at (208) 765-7147 or by e-mail at benjamins@spokesman.com.


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