Wednesday, February 13, 2013

OH EPA: Death by Chocolate, Death by Power Point

Jane Murray addressing panel at EPA meeting following stultifying
 Power Point presentation by Richard Duncan, on stage left

In Flohr Hall of Clark Memorial Library at Shawnee State University, on  the evening of  February 12, 2013, the Ohio EPA sponsored an Information Session and a Public Hearing regarding the draft agreement  reached between the Ohio EPA and the city of Portsmouth. In a display of bureaucratese,  somebody in government had named this kind of  agreement “Administrative Order of Content.” One of the aims of bureaucratese, as this name illustrates, is to keep the public in the dark about what is going on. The AOC in question, to use its acronym, has to do with water. When it comes to two extremely important  resources, namely water and money, Portsmouth city government has played fast and loose with state and federal laws and ordinances that are supposed to  regulate them. 
The Information part of the EPA evening, which took up the first hour, consisted almost entirely of a deadly dull Power Point presentation by Richard Duncan, the city’s man in charge of sewers. Duncan’s Power Point presentation had as one of its results, intended or not, the paralysis of most of the forty or so members of the public and city government in attendance.  Just as spiders paralyze the  insects that fall into their webs, preserving them for future consumption, Duncan with his mumbling delivery, faded slides, and hypnotic red laser pointer, rendered the audience stultified for the second hour of the meeting, the so-called Public Hearing half of the evening, during which the audience was allowed to  ask questions about the “information” that Duncan had provided in his Power Point presentation. However, when Duncan finished and the  moderator asked for questions,  there were none.  Tick, tick, tick. She waited and she waited. How embarrassing. It was like asking the paralyzed insects trapped in a spider web if they had any questions about the spider’s slide show. Finally, to  everyone’s relief, somebody finally came forward and asked a question.
Emboldened by that hearty soul, I volunteered to ask a question,  but as I approached  the microphone at the front of the hall  my foot was asleep and so was my cobwebby  brain.  I asked the panel about  subhead sections F and G on page 4 of  the draft agreement. The “Respondent” referred to at the beginning of F is the city of Portsmouth or its chief officer, the mayor. However, although Portsmouth Mayor Unelect   David Malone was in the audience he took no part in the proceedings and asked no questions, leaving Duncan to twist in the wind. The question I asked the panel on stage was how come there was no mention during the Information hour  of  the important statement in the agreement that charged the  Respondent (the city)  with repeated violations of the Sciotoville and Portsmouth  permits governing the city’s handling of  sewage water and storm water, and the violation by the city of  the  requirements of Section 301 of the Clean Water Act, the federal law governing polluted water throughout the United States. What follows is a  photocopy of the section of the agreement I am alluding to:

From the draft agreement between OH EPA and city of Portsmouth

           It was Duncan who answered my question why the charges against the city (and him principally) had not been mentioned. He said the part of the draft agreement I referred to was “boilerplate” language and didn’t really mean much. His answer like his Power Point presentation was an effort to deceive and obfuscate. The Respondent referred in F of page 4 of the draft agreement is not just anybody or any city; it applies specifically to Portsmouth, which a number of times, during storms, had discharged raw sewage into the Ohio River. I asked the panel if they agreed with Duncan that it was boilerplate language and didn’t really mean much. The EPA representative, Barbara VanTil,  sitting immediately to Duncan’s left on the panel nodded her head in agreement with him and murmured “Yes.” Her response was a revelation to me. I have always assumed the acronym EPA stood for Environment Protection Agency. I did not know it also meant Egregious Protection of Assholes. What Ms. VanTil’s response and the meeting itself revealed to me was the  likelihood that the city’s chronic sewer crisis is the result not just of the incompetence and dishonesty of politicians of Portsmouth but of the enabling of the good folks at the EPA at both the state and federal levels. They are, knowledgeable, polite, and even sweet, like chocolate, but they are also the kiss of death, like Duncan’s toxic Power Point presentation. Just today PBS released a report by the Center for Public Integrity, with the title “EPA Contaminated by Conflict of Interest” (click here.) That appeared to be the case at the meeting OH EPA hosted last evening in Portsmouth.
It must be very difficult to work for an agency like the EPA in a swing state like Ohio. In very red or very blue state, you would know where you stand. But in a swing state like Ohio, half blue and half red, the politics of environmental protection are as polluted as the sewers of Portsmouth.  I suspect that OH EPA is constantly trying to avoid getting caught in the middle, to avoid controversy and, consequently, by not taking a stand, they become enablers. The water controversy has drug on for years, as they say in southern Ohio, and will probably drag on, unresolved,  for many years more, as the OH EPA enables  as it waffles.
It’s the same with money. While the state auditor in Ohio dilly dallies the crooked politicians in Portsmouth channel money that is supposed to be used for road, bridges, and sewers to increase their own salaries and the salaries and benefits of the public employees who strongly support them. It’s the same with water. Instead of taking decisive action, the EPA treads water, enabling incompetent city employees like Duncan to discharge raw sewage into the Ohio and paralyze attendees at EPA public meetings with stultifying  Power Point presentations.  It is no wonder city politicians privately express contempt for the toothless state regulatory agencies. If former mayor Jane Murray and councilman Steve Sturgill had not been at the meeting, challenging the bureaucratese and the raw sewage,  the rest of us might still be sitting in Flohr Hall, paralyzed by  Duncan’s Power Point presentation.

. . . the rest of us might still be sitting in Flohr Hall, paralyzed by  Duncan’s Power Point presentation.