Ohio Coal Watchdog Explains How John Kasich Forced Him Out

Ohio Gov. John Kasich delivers his State of the State address at Veterans Memorial Civic and Convention Center in Lima, Ohio, Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
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George Elmaraghy, a top watchdog at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, says he was forced to leave his job for running afoul of the coal industry and Gov. John Kasich.

Elmaraghy explained the chain of events in an extensive phone interview with TPM. His story — which the Ohio EPA and Kasich’s office declined to comment on — suggests an administration beholden to the coal industry and willing to push out employees who weren’t going to capitulate to its demands.

It started about nine months ago when coal companies came to the state EPA with plans for mining permits that Elmaraghy said would have violated rules set by the U.S. EPA. Elmaraghy reviewed those permits, one of his duties as the head of the surface water division.

In conversations with the companies, he explained that the federal agency would likely reject the proposals because they violated federal law and encouraged the companies to alter their permit applications so they would be approved.

The coal companies didn’t like Elmaraghy’s response and went straight to the governor’s office roughly three months ago, he said. The governor’s staff worked alongside the coal companies to craft a permit application that was more to their liking.

Then on Aug. 9, Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally told Elmaraghy that the governor’s office wanted Elmaraghy, a 39-year veteran of the agency, gone. He would either resign by Sept. 13 or be fired.

The 66-year-old, who had immigrated from Egypt to Ohio more than 40 years ago, reluctantly accepted that offer. He left his job for the last time last Friday.

In Elmaraghy’s mind, there seems only one explanation for what had happened: Kasich office’s demanded his removal because Elmaraghy wasn’t getting along with the coal industry. He repeatedly told TPM that nobody had ever mentioned problems with his job performance or told him what he had specifically done that led to his forced resignation.

“I am left with the impression that somebody in the Governor’s office thought that removing me … would please the coal industry,” he wrote in a Friday goodbye email to his colleagues. “I sincerely hope that my suspicion is wrong.”

Ohio coal companies have been feuding with the U.S. EPA over the coal regulations that Elmaraghy said he referenced in his conversations with coal companies, as the Columbus Dispatch reported Sunday. They contend that the regulations, which set limits on certain emissions from mining operations, are illegal and that the Ohio state government should not enforce them. They point to court cases won by the National Mining Association in 2011 and 2012 that challenged the regulations, which were instituted in 2010.

Elmaraghy said after he advised one coal company, Murray Energy, that the federal agency would not accept applications that didn’t adhere to the new rules, it approached the governor’s office for help. The governor’s staff then participated in the permit drafting process, which Elmaraghy said was “kind of unusual.”

Murray Energy’s permit, completed without the limits, was sent to the U.S. EPA last week, according to the Dispatch. Bennoc, Inc., another Ohio-based mining company, also took their issues with Elmaraghy to the governor’s office, according to Elmaraghy. The Dispatch also reported issues with permits from Sterling Mining and Oxford Resources.

Murray Energy, a $600 million company, told the Dispatch that the jobs of its 1,600 workers in Ohio were “at stake” over the permit.

Elmaraghy said he isn’t alone in being targeted by Kasich’s office for clashing with coal companies. He mentioned Bruce Goff, another Ohio EPA official who had been overseeing mining applications, who Elmaraghy said had been reassigned for raising similar concerns.

Reached by phone, Goff confirmed to TPM that he did formerly work on coal permits, but had since been reassigned. He declined to comment further.

“I’m not at this point able to really explain what happened,” Goff said. “I’m still working here. I have to figure out my career plans.”

According to Elmaraghy, Nally, the state EPA director, explicitly told him on Aug. 9 that Kasich’s office wanted him to leave and that it was “because of the coal issues.” Elmaraghy said he was never given any more specific reasons about why he was being told to resign.

Nally told Elmaraghy that he should take the deal because he was already eligible for retirement, Elmaraghy said. “He said, ‘Well, you’re not in a bad situation. You have good retirement. Just leave,” Elmaraghy told TPM.

Nally gave Elmaraghy a week, until Aug. 16, to make his decision whether to resign or be fired. With the pressure mounting, Elmaraghy told TPM that he fainted at a staff meeting on Aug. 12 and was taken to the emergency room. The ER doctor advised him to take two weeks off work, Elmaraghy said, but then Nally’s office instructed him that he must return to the office on Aug. 16 or be fired.

Three days later, Elmaraghy announced to staff in a widely reported email that he would resign.

“Nobody told me exactly why I had to go,” Elmaraghy said. “I really don’t know why I was a target. I asked quite a few times: Did I make the wrong decision? Nobody gave me that chance.”

Elmaraghy, who has hired an attorney, is appealing his resignation to the Ohio Personnel Board of Review. He told TPM that he hopes to be reinstated.

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