Thin Skin Alert!

The EPA's ego is bleeding.

The Mothman Prophecies
It's not uncommon for government officials to cut off contact with the media. Those engaged in what is euphemistically called "public service" tend to have egos so large, they come equipped with their own restroom facilities. Speak ill of them, and they'll refuse to talk. It's the dainty government version of trying to kick your ass.

So it came as no surprise when the Ohio EPA said it would no longer speak to Scene. Because we had not "accurately or fairly" represented the agency in recent articles and because of our "refusal to print the facts," wrote spokeswoman Kara Allison, the agency "will no longer be providing media interviews to the staff of Cleveland Scene."

This is a time-honored public relations maneuver, previously employed to great effect by such master pols as Mike White and Nixon. If you have a tarnished image, what better way to rebuild it than by ensuring your side of a story won't appear in the paper? It's akin to a debate coach telling his team: "If we just shut up, this baby's a lock to win."

We media lowlifes are familiar with such complaints. It's easy to separate the whiners from those with legit beefs. The latter will cite specific instances where they thought you sucked and back it up with supporting evidence. The whiners toss around words like "accuracy," "fairness," and "just print the facts," but can't point out exactly where you erred. They just know that, if one doesn't buy into their bloated self-regard, one must be wrong.

Scene offered the EPA an opportunity to specify our sins, but Allison and Carol Hester, chief of the alleged communications office, did not return phone calls and letters. Probably a good thing. Since the EPA is so inept at protecting the environment, it should logically have an incompetent PR department to match.

This is, after all, the agency that knew about toxic groundwater in Middlefield seven years ago, but failed to act. Now the city is home to abnormal rates of leukemia and rare cancer, says the county health commissioner.

It's the agency that knew about contamination near Marion school grounds in 1989, but didn't act until 1997 -- "after the families of the leukemia patients started talking in the hospitals and they made the association that the leukemia was related to River Valley High School," says Teresa Mills, director of the Buckeye Environmental Network.

It's the agency that, in 1990, started investigating the Columbus Steel Drum site, where the contamination ranking is high enough to make it a Superfund site. "It sits within 1,000 feet from a well field in which a community draws its water," says Mills. "But as far as I can tell, nothing has been done."

It's the agency that launched Mills's environmental career, when she discovered that a plant in her Columbus neighborhood was churning out 565 times the level of dioxin allowed by federal law. The information was in EPA files, but neighbors were never notified, and the company was never cited.

And it's the agency whose former director, Donald Schregardus, was nominated by President Bush to be the U.S. EPA's top enforcement officer. His appointment was sabotaged when the feds issued a report saying that, because Ohio so sucked at enforcing air-pollution programs, the feds would take them over if the Ohio EPA didn't improve.

In November, Allison told Scene that her agency doesn't have the power or funding to truly enforce environmental laws, and that cleanup plans must come with a company's blessing -- and a willingness to pay for them. It's like the Cleveland Police saying, "We'd like to nab that serial rapist, but he just won't agree to be arrested."

Of course, the EPA has loads of power. It just won't use it, preferring to massage its ego and tend to its thin skin. And it will do so in silence. When you're in the business of ineptitude and neglect, leaving leukemia-stricken kids in your wake, what more is there to say?

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