Whitman Reorganizes Office of Ombudsman

EPA Administrator Christie Whitman plans to reorganize the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) office of ombudsman to give it "a truly independent and impartial investigatory function."

Administrator Christie Whitman plans to reorganize the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) office of ombudsman to give it "a truly independent and impartial investigatory function," according to the agency. The ombudsman will be relocated early next year to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at EPA, an independent organization within the agency.

"After much deliberation, and serious consideration of recommendations from the General Accounting Office, Senator Mike Crapo and other members of Congress, I have decided to move this function from the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to the Office of the Inspector General. I believe this will give the ombudsman more independence and the impartiality necessary to conduct credible inquiries," said Whitman.

As part of this shift, the EPA Inspector General will conduct a systematic review of open inquiries for citizens who have sought agency assistance.

"It is our expectation that the National Solid and Hazardous Waste Ombudsman function will become a part of a more holistic effort within the OIG [by] addressing public concerns across the spectrum of EPA programs," said Whitman.

Originally created by the 1984 amendments to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the ombudsman was designated to receive individual complaints, grievances, and requests for information, and to make appropriate recommendations regarding RCRA. Because it was viewed as a valuable service, the ombudsman office was retained after its authorization expired in 1988.

Over time, the jurisdiction of the office has expanded to include Superfund and other hazardous waste programs. The ombudsman evaluates the merits of complaints, including those referred by Members of Congress on behalf of citizens.

The number and significance of the ombudsman's inquiries have increased, and issues have been raised as to whether or not there are institutional barriers to the performance of the ombudsman's responsibilities. A recent GAO report to Congress found the current location of the office was an impediment to its independence.

"I found the report compelling and consistent with concerns raised by other groups, including various associations of ombudsmen and the American Bar Association," said Whitman.

The OIG is an independent organization within the agency with a good track record of objectivity in evaluating the interests of all parties and ensuring that questions receive answers. The agency hopes the reorganization will facilitate agency implementation of GAO's secondary recommendations for increased accountability and record-keeping. The Inspector General has established rigorous procedures to ensure proper documentation and reporting of all investigations and inquiries.

edited by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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