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U.S. lawmakers oppose job cuts at EPA's watchdog

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are objecting to plans to close field outposts and lay off staff at the independent office that keeps watch over the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of the country’s anti-pollution rules.

The acting head of the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General ruffled feathers at the House Energy and Commerce Committee after he told his staff the threat of budget cuts from the White House may force up to 30 workers to leave as soon as next month through buyouts.

In an e-mail to workers, acting IG Bill Roderick said a proposed $5.1 million cut in the office’s budget for the 2008 spending year, which begins October 1, would force it to cut close to 10 percent of its staff.

“We have to take action to be ready to live on a much reduced budget in FY 2008 and beyond,” Roderick wrote to employees. He added it was “very likely we will have to close facilities and/or conduct a reduction in force.”

The agency now has 362 full-time workers and a budget of about $50 million.

Roderick said workers who would be eligible for the buyouts included criminal investigators, auditors, computer specialists, chemists and support staff.

However, Democratic Rep. John Dingell, the chairman of the House’s energy and commerce panel, said the budget cut for the office proposed by the White House may not be approved by Congress and there is no need to start paring staff.

“We are concerned that if Congress does not approve the requested OIG budget cuts, your buyout initiative could cause unnecessary loss of experienced personnel, work force disruption and waste of taxpayer dollars,” Dingell and other members of his committee said this week in a joint letter to Roderick. “We urge you not to proceed in this manner.”

The OIG performs audits, evaluations and investigations of EPA and its contractors. With less staff, it could be more difficult for the OIG to make sure the EPA is enforcing anti-pollution rules and environmental regulations at oil refineries, power plants and other regulated facilities.

“It will mean the IG’s office will be far less effective at uncovering misdeeds within the EPA, and that could be really bad for people’s health and the environment,” said Frank O’Donnell, who heads Clean Air Watch.

For example, OIG recently criticized the Bush administration’s changes in clean air regulations for power plants and refineries, arguing they could result in more air pollution.

The OIG has also questioned whether the administration’s strategy for reducing dangerous mercury emissions will work.

At the end of last year, it found that the EPA needed to improve its reviews of Superfund sites, areas where toxins pose a serious risk to human health.

“It is not surprising that the last thing the Bush administration values is aggressive investigation into corporate pollution offenses and the political collusion that lubricates them,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, of the staff cuts.

O’Donnell said the buyouts would be targeted at long-time OIG workers, who are viewed as “trouble-makers” by the White House. “Those pesky inspectors have been blowing the whistle on the Bush misdeeds at EPA,” he said.

An OIG spokesman said the office was still reviewing the letter from the lawmakers and could not comment on the matter.

Prior Inspector General Nikki Tinsley resigned in January 2006 after holding the post for nearly 10 years. Her nominated permanent replacement, Alex Beehler, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate.