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A muzzled watchdog

Neighbors of the Stauffer Chemical Superfund site are among those who should be troubled by the treatment of the EPA's outspoken investigator.

Did revenge or provocation cause Hugh Kaufman to be transferred out of his job as investigator for the ombudsman's office in the Environmental Protection Agency? It is easy to believe that Kaufman embarrassed the EPA one too many times by exposing its slipshod handling of Superfund sites, including the cleanup of Stauffer Chemical near Tarpon Springs. It is also easy to believe that Kaufman's caustic style finally got under the skin of top EPA officials.

The reason Kaufman was removed from the ombudsman's office, however, is not what matters most. Keeping the office independent and adequately staffed to carry out its watchdog role is the important issue.

The ombudsman's office was established to investigate complaints about the EPA's cleanup of toxic waste sites. Kaufman, a 30-year veteran at EPA, had been the ombudsman's only investigator and took his duties seriously. He discovered that an on-site cleanup of radioactive material at Shattuck Chemical in Denver was flawed. The dangerous waste will now have to be dug up and carted off. When the EPA proposed a similar on-site "fix" for the Stauffer Chemical site, Kaufman raised troubling questions, forcing the EPA to withdraw the plan and do more testing.

Kaufman hasn't always considered the feelings of agency higher-ups before acting. At a hearing on the Stauffer cleanup, he began by reading the Miranda warning against self-incrimination to EPA officials present. Kaufman says he was told to do so if he believed statements might later be used in a criminal investigation, but it is that kind of behavior that has angered his bosses.

Current Ombudsman Robert Martin and Kaufman have clashed with the EPA and the Clinton administration on other projects around the country. Perhaps the most volatile case involved a toxic waste incinerator near an elementary school in Ohio. Just weeks before this year's presidential election, Martin recommended that the plant be shut down and tests run on the incinerator's emissions, but EPA Administrator Carol Browner allowed the plant to continue operating. The incinerator was an issue during the campaign, and Vice President Al Gore narrowly lost in Ohio.

Now, the ombudsman's office is under assault in the waning days of the Clinton administration. Kaufman has been transferred _ depriving the office of his institutional knowledge _ and the EPA is writing new guidelines for the ombudsman.

Is it revenge or a reprimand for an unruly office? The reason may not matter, but the result does. Only an independent and competent ombudsman's office can resolve the public's doubts about Superfund projects. When it plays its proper role, the ombudsman's office can actually enhance the EPA's credibility.

It could be up to the Bush administration and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, the EPA's incoming administrator, to repair the damage done to the ombudsman's office. Given the concerns about President-elect George W. Bush's commitment to environmental protection, many observers are pessimistic about the chances for a bolstered ombudsman's office. But that is what it will take to ensure that Americans such as those living around the Stauffer Chemical site believe the EPA.