A top environmental watchdog for the state says pressure from the coal industry played a role in his resignation. Statehouse correspondent Andy Chow looks into how much influence coal companies might have on the Environmental Protection Agency.
When George Elmaraghy, chief of the EPA’s Division of Surface Water, sent a mass email to his staff Monday morning, he said he was asked to resign by the governor’s office and the director of the agency. He says the move was made after considerable pressure from the coal industry.
The Division of Surface Water executes permits ensuring that the state is following the federal Clean Water Act.
While the agency will not talk about Elmaraghy’s resignation, which takes effect next month, it does stand by its permitting process saying that their permits are evaluated by several third-parties, including the federal EPA. A spokesperson for the agency says the permits are submitted based on the law no matter who’s making the decision.
Zane Daniels is the president of the Ohio Coal Association. He said his association does not impact or play any role in personnel decisions at the EPA.
But some environmental advocates believe the coal industry does have a strong influence on the agency. Trent Dougherty, staff attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council, dealt with Elmaraghy on different issues. He says he always thought the chief was fair in his decisions.
"I’ve only known the chief to follow the law, and if the EPA is saying that everyone in that position has to follow the law, then why is he being forced to leave?" Dougherty said. "And I think that’s a question that can only be answered by the governor's office and the director of EPA."
Last week an Ohio House panel held a hearing in Belmont County to talk about energy generation. There to deliver testimony was Bob Murray, president of Murray Energy Corporation, which touts itself as the largest privately owned coal company in America.
Murray told the committee that President Barack Obama and policies by the U.S. EPA were causing “catastrophic economic destruction.”
Murray never specifically addressed state EPA policies in his written testimony, but Jed Thorp, manager of the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter, says the timing of Murray’s testimony and Elmaraghy’s resignation might not be a coincidence.
"To me it’s not real surprising that not even a week after that, that you’re seeing heads roll at the agency," Thorp said.
Murray Energy spokesman Gary Broadbent says the company had nothing to do with the resignation of Elmaraghy.
Both the Ohio Environmental Council and the Sierra Club say Elmaraghy’s departure is a step in the wrong direction as far as protecting Ohio’s streams and wetlands.