Keeping a promise made during last fall's election campaign, Mayor Mark Mallory is leading an effort to revive Cincinnati's Office of Environmental Management (OEM), disbanded by his predecessor, Charlie Luken, in 2003.
The chief question facing city officials, however, is what role the watchdog agency should fill if it's restored.
Mallory and several of his fellow Democrats on city council agree that Cincinnati should resume some control and oversight of environmental issues instead of relying on state and federal agencies that are often slow to react to local complaints.
"In the last few years, Cincinnati has faced several major environmental problems, with the styrene leak and the fire at the Queen City Barrel Co.," Mallory said April 21. "It is clear that we need city experts to help us protect the health of our city."
The risk of relying on the feds
One of the primary responsibilities of the previous OEM was administering and enforcing Title X, the city's air quality ordinance that regulated odors and was designed to reduce toxic emissions. Title X also was abolished three years ago, after Luken called it redundant.
But city council, led by Councilman John Cranley, successfully restored a similar law one year later. Now the city prosecutor's office handles enforcement and has the option of pressing criminal charges against the most egregious and consistent offenders.
Still, city officials, the Sierra Club, environmental activists and others say there are plenty of problems that a new OEM could try to resolve.
During the next two months Mallory and Councilman David Crowley, a longtime OEM supporter, will convene a planning group to develop the agency's new structure. Describing the group as a "broad cross-section" of community leaders, it will include city officials, environmental groups, businesses and residents.
"We're trying to get the concept hammered out by June," Crowley says. "We want to look at what is it that's not being done by the feds, what's not being done by the state and what can the city realistically do."
The new agency and an as yet undetermined amount of operating funding will be included in the proposed 2007-08 municipal budget that Mallory will present to city council this fall.
David Altman, an attorney who has been involved in litigating environmental disputes, says many people assume that state and federal regulations offer sufficient protection, which is a misperception.
"A lot of people think the federal government is taking care of us," Altman says. "They don't understand the environmental protection network, which has had a lot of money cut in recent years, doesn't work on its own. All you have to do is look at FEMA."
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has received widespread criticism for its response last year to Hurricane Katrina.
Budget cuts, changing mission statements and "trivialization" by key politicians have hampered the effectiveness of state and federal watchdog agencies, according to Altman. The result often means that environmental problems fall largely on poor and minority communities, which have little clout and cannot afford lobbyists to represent their interests, he says.
"We know these problems hit heaviest on the people who are the most vulnerable," Altman says. "There needs to be some entity thinking about the environmental protection network so it actually protects the people."
Altman cites his personal experience working mostly free of charge for the past 21 years to help residents in Pleasant Ridge and Bond Hill force the Hilton Davis chemical plant to clean up spills and toxic emissions in a 6.5-acre lagoon area near the plant.
"The experience has been that the people who have smelled most of the problems and experienced most of the problems have been right, but they were ignored," he says. "Before that, the citizens were ignored by the county air agency that contracts with the (Ohio Environmental Protection Administration)."
Lots to be done
Dennis Murphey, the city's former OEM director, who now holds a similar position in Kansas City, Mo., says the agency handled a multitude of functions that it could resume. They include overseeing occupational safety and health programs for city workers, devising long-term solid waste planning and cleaning landfills, inventorying and assessing contaminated industrial properties — known as "brownfields" — for possible redevelopment and monitoring groundwater issues such as sewage overflows.
"There are a lot of different ways it can be organized," Murphey says. "It's wise to get input from the community and see what they want it to be."
Cincinnati's original OEM was created in 1992 by a group of city council members that included Bobbie Sterne and Roxanne Qualls. At its peak in 2002, before Luken's budget cuts began, the agency had an $800,000 annual budget and a 14-member staff. It included five employees responsible for worker safety programs, two for environmental compliance issues and one each for air quality, solid waste and pollution prevention.
The Sierra Club supports OEM's revival and recently sent Mallory an outline of proposed duties it could fulfill. Cincinnati has "key areas which have suffered from neglect," club members say. One such area is what's commonly referred to as environmental justice, or ensuring protection for poor neighborhoods already grappling with contamination and emission issues.
Some areas of Cincinnati rank over 120 times the nationwide average health risk and are among the worst 5 percent for health risk in the nation due to industrial pollution, according to the Sierra Club.
Council's Republican members are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the effort.
Councilman Chris Monzel, perhaps the group's most conservative member, who has called for reducing the size of municipal government, says he wouldn't take a stance on the issue until he learns more details. His GOP colleague, Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, is worried about creating a large bureaucracy. The city should be spending its limited resources on reducing crime and shootings, she says.
"We have federal programs and state programs to deal with this stuff," Ghiz says. "If there are gaps, let's handle it but let's just have a couple of people under the city manager. We don't need a whole department."
Business interests have been leery about the proposal, fearing another layer of regulations that will make it even more difficult to attract new residents and companies to Cincinnati, which they say are desperately needed to offset steep population losses during the past few decades. The local Chamber of Commerce initially was involved in an ongoing effort to draft a city environmental justice ordinance but dropped out a few months ago. Despite the friction, Crowley says they'll be invited to help formulate the new OEM.
"Ultimately, this is a good thing for business," Crowley says. "Companies aren't going to want to relocate or have their workers live where the quality of life isn't good." ©