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Environmental Advocates, Lawmakers Want Answers On EPA Chief Resignation

Flickr Creative Commons user Bill Herndon

The Ohio EPA official who recently resigned is serving the last day of his tenure Friday. George Elmaraghy sent a letter in August telling employees the Kasich administration wanted him gone due to pressure from the coal industry. Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow has been following the story and spoke to Emily McCord for PoliticsOhio.

Emily McCord: Bring us up to speed on the situation surround George Elmaraghy’s resignation in August.

Andy Chow: So, last month, George Elmaraghy sent a mass email to his staff announcing that he was resigning and in that email he noted “considerable pressure” coming from the coal companies and said that the coal companies were wanting his division, which is the division of surface water, to better accommodate the coal companies’ and coal industries’ needs. And he said because of this situation that the governor and the director of the EPA had asked him to resign. So, he wrote this email out to his staff, and sent it to a large number of people in the EPA, and later that day it ended up leaking to the public, and that’s how we all got a hold of it.

EM: What’s the backstory here? Is there evidence that the coal industry has undue influence in political decisions at the statehouse?

AC: Well, after this came out, I reached out to a couple of people in the coal industry, including the Ohio Coal Association. They said that they have no influence and no part of personnel matters regarding the EPA. I also reached out to a spokesperson with the Murray Energy Corporation, one of the country’s largest privately owned coal companies. He said that there’s no way that their company had any influence over this either. But, in talking to some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, they mention that the timing of the resignation was sort of suspect given that a week before George Elmaraghy sent out this email and announced his resignation, Bob Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy Corporation had sort of railed against federal EPA standards during a House committee meeting. I read over his written testimony and he never mentioned the Ohio EPA and Ohio standards, but he really did mention how all the regulations from the federal EPA were hurting his business and hurting the industry.

EM: Now, two environmental groups are weighing in and want an audit. What exactly are they asking for?

AC: The Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council sent a letter to the federal EPA. They’re asking for federal agents to conduct an audit of permits that are coming out of the Ohio EPA. And those permits regard the kind of pollution that can come from coal industries and these permits allow for pollution to a certain amount. What the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council want is just a second review of the permits in the last six months that have been issued to coal companies, sort of just questioning what kind of influence the coal companies have had and what’s going on as far as those permits are concerned.

EM: Would that show some sort of link to the resignation of the EPA chief or would it just be on what influence the coal industry has?

AC: Yeah, it’s hard to say if that would show any type of link. It’s interesting because the Ohio EPA has not commented about Mr. Elmaraghy’s resignation. They’ve said over and over again they don’t talk about personnel matters. But they have consistently defended the permits that they issued, saying that these permits always withstand review and scrutiny from other parties, including the federal EPA. And when I talked to a spokesperson with the Ohio EPA after these environmental groups called for the federal EPA to conduct an audit, he said that they welcome this type of scrutiny because these permits that they’re asking to be audited already went through a review from the US EPA. I think in their minds it really doesn’t matter.

EM: A Democratic lawmaker has also raised questions on the matter. What has the response been there?

AC: Representative Debbie Phillips is a Democrat from the Athens area. She took an interest in this story and she wants to know about the resignation and what kind of influence that the coal companies have. So she announced that she was conducting a request for records from the governor’s administration to find out what kinds of events led up to George Elmaraghy’s resignation. And so she filed a public records request and she’s just asking for correspondence between all the different parties to kind of find out what’s happening. And I just talked to Representative Phillips’ office and they said they just received all those records and they’re going through a large stack of papers right now to figure out what they’ve received, so we’re still waiting to find out about that.

EM: What’s the Kasich administration’s response to all this?

AC: I reached out to the governor’s office a couple of times to talk about this and they consistently referred me to the Ohio EPA. But it is interesting because the Columbus Dispatch about a week or two ago did quote a spokesperson from the governor’s office who did have some…sort of brushed off the accusations from Representative Phillips and kind of brushed off her requests for records, saying this is not a story.

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