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George Elmaraghy, Environmental Regulator, Says He Was Pushed Out For Opposing Coal Industry

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WASHINGTON -- Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has forced out the head of a key division of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in response to pressure from the coal industry, according to an email obtained by The Huffington Post.

George Elmaraghy, the chief of the division of surface water at OEPA, told staff in the email that the governor’s office and the director of the agency had asked him to resign, effective Sept. 13, 2013. In the letter, Elmaraghy cited "considerable pressure from the coal companies over the last year" demanding that his staff "accommodate the industry’s needs by issuing permits that may have a negative impact on Ohio's streams and wetlands and violate state and federal laws."

Elmaraghy has worked at the Ohio EPA for more than 30 years. He took over as head of the surface water office, which oversees many of the permits coal companies need to mine and dispose of waste, in 2005.

The coal industry has targeted both Ohio's environmental regulators and the federal government over enforcement of clean water standards. Robert Murray, the president of Ohio-based Murray Energy -- the largest privately owned coal company in America -- railed against the Ohio EPA in a hearing before a committee in the state legislature last week. Murray also criticized what he called a "coordinated effort to accomplish the total destruction of the United States coal industry" in a speech at Ohio University on Aug. 12.

"George wouldn’t say he was asked to resign because of their history with the coal companies unless that was absolutely the case," said Jed Thorp, who worked at the OEPA from 2007 to 2012. Thorp, who is now the manager of the Sierra Club's Ohio chapter, described Elmaraghy as a "by the book" kind of guy with more than three decades of experience at the agency. “He wasn’t doing anything radical,” Thorp said.

An aide to Kasich referred questions to the Ohio EPA.

”Ohio EPA will not discuss personnel matters, but we will defend the integrity of the permitting process,” an OEPA spokesman said in an email. “There are several checks and balances built into the regulatory process. Permits we issue must withstand scrutiny not only from U.S. EPA, but must stand up on appeal to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission and other courts. Those third parties ultimately determine if any action under appeal was issued lawfully and reasonably.”

Elmaraghy's full email is below.

From: Elmaraghy, George

Sent: Monday, August 19, 2013 8:08 AM

To: EPA All

Subject: Thank you

As you know, there has been considerable pressure from the coal companies over the last year for the division staff to accommodate the industry’s needs by issuing permits that may have a negative impact on Ohio’s streams and wetlands and violate state and federal laws. The division staff acted appropriately in trying to implement the law and made every reasonable effort to accommodate the industry’s needs. In doing so, we always acted under the direction of the Governor’s Office, Ohio EPA Director and Chief Counsel.

Because of the industry’s interpretation of the federal Clean Water Act and state water pollution control laws, DSW staff worked under difficult conditions but you have done your jobs honorably. Now, due to this situation, the Governor’s Office and the Director have asked me to resign my position as Chief of the DSW at the Ohio EPA, effective September 13, 2013.

Our division went through similar situations in the past and the division staff was able to overcome these difficulties and accomplish our water quality goals in the end. For example, in the last several years, we have:

1. initiated new programs such as near shore monitoring for Lake Erie,

2. initiated the inland lakes monitoring program,

3. created the Surface Water Improvement Fund grant program,

4. instituted the eDMR (electronic discharge monitoring reports),

5. started dredging the Ashtabula River with the intent to delist it soon,

6. removed several dams and restored riverbanks along several major rivers,

7. reached agreement with the majority of communities with combined
sewer overflow to control the discharge of raw sewage into Ohio’s
lakes and rivers.

8. improved compliance rates and eliminated permit backlog.

As a result, we have been able to bring the majority of Ohio’s large rivers into attainment with water quality standards. You can take pride in knowing that Ohio’s Surface Water program is the envy of other states. I know you will continue our mission to provide clean water for Ohio’s communities and businesses and protect & improve the state’s greatest resource, our water.

I will always greatly appreciate your help and support while I was division chief, and I urge all of you to maintain the high standards of integrity that have always marked our Division.

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EPA water chief says governor asked him to step down