From The Editor | June 17, 2015

EPA Fails 6 Subjects

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By Kevin Westerling,
@KevinOnWater

examination

Like so many schoolchildren sweating out final grades, the U.S. EPA gets its own report card each year, served by the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG). Unfortunately, it’s full of bad marks.

It’s not that the EPA hasn’t done well in some (or even many) areas. Plaudits are for another day, however. This report — “EPA’s Fiscal Year 2015 Management Challenges” — is specifically designed to point out agency weaknesses, as mandated by the Reports Consolidation Act of 2000.

Management challenges, the May report notes, are “programs or management functions, within or across agencies, that have greater vulnerability to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement where a failure to perform well could seriously affect the ability of an agency or the federal government to achieve its mission or goals.”

So where is the EPA struggling? Read on for a summary, or download the full report for more detail.

6 EPA Management Challenges

Before proceeding, it’s worth noting that these same six management challenges were carried over from last year’s report “due to persistent issues,” according to the OIG.

  1. The EPA Needs to Improve Oversight of States Authorized to Accomplish Environmental Goals

This challenge has been cited in the report since (fiscal year) 2008, and speaks to issues on both the federal and state levels. The EPA delegates the enforcement of environmental laws to state programs, but doesn’t properly ensure compliance at the local level. Furthermore, oversight processes across different states and EPA regions is inconsistent.

The report identifies the U.S. Virgin Islands, which failed on numerous requirements related to the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and the Underground Storage Tank/Leaking Underground Storage Tank programs, as illustrative of poor performance on the local level and poor oversight by the EPA. Other EPA failures include not obtaining the required Drinking Water State Revolving Fund data from states, and not adequately overseeing the CWA’s pretreatment and permit programs designed to monitor and mitigate hazardous chemicals discharged by industrial users.

  1. Limited Controls Hamper the Safe Reuse of Contaminated Sites

The EPA is committed to rehabilitating and reusing contaminated land, particularly EPA Superfund sites, but the long-term nature of full remediation has proven difficult for the agency in meeting its goals. Monitoring activities can span decades and are often performed by non-EPA parties, thus limiting EPA control. Still, the EPA must ensure that authorized entities carry out remediation responsibilities properly. To that end, the agency developed “Institutional Controls: A Guide To Preparing Institutional Controls Implementation and Assurance Plans at Contaminated Sites” based on prior recommendations, but additional recommendations remain unimplemented.

  1. The EPA Faces Challenges in Managing Chemical Risks

There is growing concern among the public about the number of chemicals in our environment — the EPA has an online database, ChemView, with information on more than 1,500 of them. The EPA is charged with assessing the safety of, and potentially regulating, these chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976; since the act’s inception, however, the EPA has limited or banned the use of just five chemicals.

Does that mean the rest of them are safe? Hardly.

The lack of activity is more likely attributable to slow work. According to the OIG, at its current pace it would take the EPA at least 10 years to get through 83 chemicals already identified in TSCA work plans. Contrasting that snail’s pace, the report (published on May 28) indicates that the EPA has committed to completing 250 assessments by Sept. 30, 2015, with no word on when this lightning round of activity commenced. The EPA has also developed six essential reform policies to improve TSCA legislation and help better manage chemical risks going forward.

  1. The EPA Needs to Improve Its Workload Analysis to Accomplish Its Mission Efficiently and Effectively

At a macro level, the EPA’s mission is very broad, labor-intensive, and often overwhelming. The OIG report states the “The EPA’s workload has continued to increase over the years while its workforce levels have declined. This trend is likely to continue, with downward pressure on budgets.”

With such limited resources available, the EPA has recognized the need for systematic workload analysis to identify workforce and budget requirements — it just hasn’t been done, or not well enough. Thus, the OIG has included this management challenge on its report for three consecutive years. The same issue was also brought to the EPA’s attention in reports by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2001, 2005, 2008, and 2009. Despite the repeated appeals, true progress doesn’t appear imminent. In fact, “agency-wide implementation is far from complete,” according to the OIG, as the EPA at this stage is still ramping up its workload analysis capabilities and exploring suitable methodologies.

  1. The EPA Needs to Enhance Information Technology Security to Combat Cyber Threats

Cybersecurity has long been a thorny issue for lawmakers, businesses, and the public, due to privacy concerns, but the threat is readily acknowledged — or should be, especially in the wake of China’s recent hack of U.S. intelligence. From an EPA standpoint, the security challenge is exacerbated by the agency’s decentralized operations, making it hard to enforce cybersecurity standards across the board. Nonetheless, the OIG called on the EPA to address vulnerabilities in five key areas:

  • Risk management planning
  • Security information and event management tool implementation
  • Computer security incident response capability and network operation integration
  • Computer security incident response capability relationship-building
  • Audit follow-up to ensure timely and effective actions are being taken to remediate cybersecurity weaknesses identified

This year’s OIG report harkens back to its 2011 report, which “highlighted the growing concerns and made recommendations that could help the agency strengthen cybersecurity practices.” The new report adds, “However, some of those recommendations remain unimplemented, and we continue to find and report on similar weaknesses…”

“Without immediate action, the EPA will not have the requisite tools to implement an effective, risk-based security program capable of addressing the most sophisticated threats on the horizon.”

  1. The EPA Continues to Need Improved Management Oversight to Combat Fraud and Abuse and Take Prompt Action Against Employees Found to Be Culpable

No citizen likes to hear about wasted tax dollars, and the EPA certainly can’t afford to waste money considering its previously mentioned budget shortfall. But waste there was (and is) at the EPA, due in part to what the OIG report calls a “possible ‘culture of complacency’ among some supervisors at the EPA regarding time and attendance control, employee computer usage, real property management, and taking prompt action against employees.”

As an example, the OIG references its own Early Warning Report which uncovered eight employees who cost the government an estimated $1,096,668 in administrative leave totaling 20,926 hours. The most egregious (and remarkable) single example of fraud and failed oversight is the case of John Beale, who duped the EPA with antics and fabrications that netted him compensation far beyond any work performed — even drawing a paycheck after retirement. Although Beale is not mentioned by name in the official OIG report (referenced only as “an EPA Senior Policy Advisor”), EPA Deputy Inspector General Chuck Sheehan verified Beale’s direct influence on the report and its recommendations. Sheehan noted “two recent high-profile occurrences” that were factors:

“…First [is] the matter of John Beale, the senior official who perpetrated fraud that cost the government nearly $900,000 over more than a dozen years. This fraud occurred in the categories of pay, retention bonuses, and travel,” said Sheehan. “And second, EPA’s main headquarters warehouse contained multiple unauthorized hidden personal spaces, had numerous security and safety hazards, and other flaws in its operations.”

Fixes in the queue include codified sets of rules, diligent oversight policies, and a “tone at the top” from supervisors that is communicated throughout the agency’s 15,000-plus employees and 10 regions.

Improvement(s) Needed

The following five criteria, verbatim from the OIG report, must be met for the above items to be removed from next year’s list of EPA failures … I mean, “challenges”:

  1. Demonstrated top leadership commitment
  2. Capacity — people and resources to reduce risks, and processes for reporting and accountability
  3. Corrective action plan — analysis identifying root causes, targeted plans to address root causes, and solutions
  4. Monitoring — established performance measures and data collection/analysis
  5. Demonstrated progress — evidence of implemented corrective actions and appropriate adjustments to action plans based on data

So it’s back to school for the EPA — to try again, or try harder. As the OIG monitors and reports on progress, the same question that arises with so many frustrated parents can be applied to the EPA:

Do the persistent struggles show lack of ability, or lack of effort?

Image credit: "Examination," ToGa Wanderings © 2014, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/