House Panel Told Staff Shortages at EPA Jeopardizing Its Mission

WASHINGTON (CN) – A pair of government watchdogs told a House energy oversight panel on Wednesday that the Environmental Protection Agency is critically understaffed, compromising the agency’s ability to carry out its mission.

Both Alfredo Gomez, director of natural resources and environment at the Government Accountability Office, and Alan Larsen, counsel to the EPA’s inspector general, warned lawmakers that continued understaffing and the resulting failure of the agency to act promptly on critical recommendations regarding the nation’s waters and superfund sites are setting up long-standing EPA programs for failure.

Gomez said of the 318 recommendations the GAO has made to the EPA since 2007, only 191 have been implemented.

Larsen said most recently, the EPA has failed to complete its verification of contractors tasked with protecting the agency from cyber attacks.

“The EPA is unaware of the number of contractors who require specialized training,” Larsen said. “They have not reported this to the necessary security officer. The agency has committed itself to this but the recommendation remains unimplemented, posing continuing risk to data and network information.”

Larson also told lawmakers of the agency’s failure to properly implement cloud computing initiatives, and that its failure to use a network of remote servers to store and manage data wasted millions.

“The EPA paid $2 million for services that weren’t fully rendered and did not comply with federal requirements. We asked for policy improvements and documented cost benefit analyses. To date, the agency has not implemented all of our recommendations,” Larsen said.

If the agency were to implement all of the outstanding recommendations, the EPA could save $103 million, the GAO reported.

Returning to the agency’s staffing issues, Larson said in light of devastation by Hurricane Harvey and the impending threat of Hurricane Irma, now barreling toward the U.S. mainland, the situation needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

“A robust and effective EPA is key in responding to natural disasters like Harvey,” he said. “Only 143 personnel responded to Harvey but that number is going to increase dramatically in the coming weeks. In its peak … After Hurricane Katrina, 600 EPA staff and contractors worked coast-to-coast assisting with response and clean up.

“Thousands of additional EPA employees deployed response efforts from headquarters in Washington. … we need to make sure the EPA has the employees in place to conduct this critical work,” Larsen said.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D.-Fla., whose state is now in the crosshairs of Irma, said she has been concerned about what she described as the Trump administration’s failure to fill key leadership positions at the EPA.

“Regional administrative positions are without leadership, including region six in Dallas, who responded to Harvey,” Castor said. “We blame a lot on the Senate but you can’t do that here because President Trump hasn’t nominated people for positions like deputy administrator, assistant administrator for air and radiation, chemical safety and pollution prevention, land emergency management and so on.”

While “career people are in place and carry out the work of agencies,” Larsen said, it’s ultimately up to the agency to carry out mandates.

“It’s more difficult if you don’t have the leadership,” he added.

Lawmakers asked the government watchdogs to explain how sharp funding cuts and decreased staff might effect pending audits against the agency, namely Scott Pruitt’s extensive travel to Oklahoma during the beginning of his term.

“We’ve had to cut our workforce year by year by year. And we’re down from 360 to 270 [staff]. And we anticipate having to go fewer than that … If the president’s original budget proposal is adopted by Congress, we’d have to cut very substantially the amount of work we do,” Larsen said.

As the EPA sees staff buyouts continue, there is also concern inside the agency over the integrity of the work being done there.

According to Climate Wire, officials inside the EPA have aired concerns about the coming move of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, office and the Environmental Justice Office from their current location inside the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to a new location housed directly inside Pruitt’s department.

Samantha Dravis, tasked with overseeing the move, said the impetus behind it wasn’t political, but a matter of efficiency.

“I view this move as indicating that Administrator Pruitt values the office of environmental justice and values that function and it’s not going to be eliminated; it’s going to continue,” she said. She added that the NEPA review activities would be better positioned in the policy office anyway, since it is charged with coordinating across other federal agencies.

The formal reorganization is set to begin on October 1.

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