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May 21, 2021
Staffing and safety concerns may compromise EPA enforcement mission

In a report dated May 12, 2021, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded that the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training (OCEFT) and its National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC) continue to struggle with safety concerns and staffing constraints, which may jeopardize the offices’ ability to achieve their mission of holding criminal polluters accountable for their actions. The EPA’s OCEFT investigates violations of environmental laws, with the NEIC providing forensic, scientific, and technical support for criminal and civil environmental investigations.

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The OIG audit was performed in response to a hotline complaint “to determine whether OCEFT and NEIC are addressing findings and implementing corrective actions from prior internal and external audits, inspections, and documented concerns related to NEIC,” according to the OIG report.

While the EPA has addressed some prior OIG corrective actions, concerns about “unconducted internal safety and health audits and management reviews, hazardous waste mismanagement, noncompliance with safety procedures, and staff concerns about safety and health at NEIC” remain.

“NEIC is addressing findings and implementing corrective actions related to its Quality Management System, which is designed to generate scientifically sound and legally defensible information to support environmental enforcement,” according to the report. The OIG “found that NEIC should improve tracking issues, such as observations, comments, concerns, and opportunities for improvement identified from audits; management review action items; and customer complaints.”

“NEIC had unresolved action items from OCEFT’s Professional Integrity and Quality Assurance unit’s 2017 inspection report related to staffing shortages, trust in management, and hazardous waste management. OCEFT did not conduct a follow-up review to examine the effectiveness of the implemented corrective actions. In 2020, as a result of an inspection by the State of Colorado, NEIC was cited for several hazardous waste violations. Further, NEIC’s 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results are 22 percent lower than the EPA’s averages for questions related to management and work environment.

“NEIC has been challenged by high attrition rates among staff and the inability to backfill vacant positions since 2016. If staffing levels continue to fall, NEIC risks a reduction in analytical capabilities and the ability to accomplish its mission,” according to the watchdog report.

The OIG made 10 recommendations for the assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance:

  1. “Direct the National Enforcement Investigations Center to develop and implement a formal procedure and tracking mechanism for National Enforcement Investigations Center decisions related to observations, comments, concerns, and opportunities for improvement identified from audits; management review action items that are not tracked anywhere else; and customer complaints.
  2. Direct the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training to develop and implement a follow-up process for inspection findings, including determining and documenting whether corrective actions effectively address findings.
  3. Conduct a follow-up review of hazardous waste management at the National Enforcement Investigations Center to determine whether it is complying with relevant statutes and regulations and verify internal controls are in place to ensure future compliance.
  4. Provide annual training on safety incident reporting procedures to all National Enforcement Investigations Center employees and managers, including training on preventive or corrective actions and related root-cause analysis.
  5. Develop and incorporate metrics that address safety and health issues and staff concerns into National Enforcement Investigations Center senior management performance standards, such as collecting anonymous feedback from all staff annually.
  6. In coordination with the assistant administrator for Mission Support, verify that all laboratory hoods at the National Enforcement Investigations Center are operational and certified for use.
  7. Develop and implement a staffing plan for the Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training incorporating projections of National Enforcement Investigations Center workload based upon the number of Criminal Investigation Division agents, the needs of other EPA enforcement programs, and other factors.
  8. In coordination with the assistant administrator for Mission Support, develop a joint action plan for hiring new staff at the National Enforcement Investigations Center and promptly address delays in hiring.
  9. Develop and incorporate metrics on the National Enforcement Investigations Center work environment and culture into Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training senior management performance standards, such as results from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, periodic culture audits, or other methods to measure progress.
  10. Develop and incorporate metrics that address work environment and culture into National Enforcement Investigations Center senior management performance standards.”

Of the 10 recommendations, the OIG considers 5 to be unresolved: recommendations 1, 3, 5, 9, and 10.

“The Agency’s response to our draft report illustrates that it does not fully understand or appreciate federal Office of Inspector General audit processes and standards,” the OIG report notes. “The EPA asserts that the OIG is not independent and unbiased because we did not incorporate all the information the Agency thought should be included in the report. The OIG has in fact incorporated relevant material provided by the Agency to contextualize our findings and provide the EPA’s perspective. Ultimately, we believe this report accurately reflects the conditions we found during the audit. We remain steadfast in the quality of our reporting practices and are committed to communicating our findings and conclusions to the Agency, Congress, and the public.”

The OIG processes call for a written response within 60 days.

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