The Office of Inspector General (OIG) on August 4 issued its semiannual report, “Compendium of Open and Unresolved Recommendations: Data as of March 31, 2021.” The completion of the compendium is required by law and mandates that each inspector general prepare semiannual reports for Congress, which must include “an identification of each significant recommendation described in previous semi-annual reports on which corrective action has not been completed.”
The report identifies 111 open and 25 unresolved recommendations issued to the EPA by the OIG from March 2017 through March 2021. If the recommendations were to be implemented, the OIG estimates “[t]he total potential monetary benefit [to be], on average, $167 million for the open recommendations and $7.5 million for the unresolved recommendations.”
The OIG defines open recommendations “as those that the EPA and the OIG agree on but that have not yet been completed. This includes recommendations with corrective actions past due or due in the future.”
Unresolved recommendations are defined as “those that the Agency and the OIG do not agree on. This includes disagreement on either the recommendation itself or the proposed corrective action.”
The report identifies 14 high-priority recommendations, including some of those detailed below.
Communicating ethylene oxide emissions risks to residents
The OIG recommended that the EPA “[i]mprove and continue to implement ongoing risk communication efforts by promptly providing residents in all communities near the 25 ethylene oxide-emitting facilities identified as high-priority by the EPA with a forum for an interactive exchange of information with the EPA or the states regarding health concerns related to exposure to ethylene oxide.”
This recommendation is still open because it was not accepted by the EPA. Alternate corrective actions were accepted from the Office of Air and Radiation. Only 9 of the 25 impacted communities were notified of these risks, according to the OIG.
Planning and communication in tribal ‘circuit rider’ program
The tribal circuit rider program prioritizes the “ongoing, dedicated assistance to California and Arizona Tribes to build their capacity to provide safe water in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
There are two open recommendations in this category:
- “Require circuit riders to include the pesticide needs and risks of each tribe on their circuit in the development of their priority-setting plans, which are a required component of tribal pesticide enforcement cooperative agreements.
- Develop and implement tribal circuit rider guidance for pesticide inspectors that includes expectation-setting and communication with tribes that are being served under a tribal pesticide enforcement cooperative agreement.”
These two OIG recommendations were accepted. The planned completion date is December 31, 2022.
Ability to respond to disasters
The OIG recommended that the EPA “[m]aintain an official agencywide management and tracking system for homeland security and emergency response equipment that provides for the status, availability, and acquisition costs of all equipment.”
Corrective actions are pending and scheduled for completion by June 2022.
Title VI funding and preventing discrimination
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance.
There are six open recommendations in this category:
- “Develop and implement a plan to coordinate relevant Agency program, regional, and administrative offices with the External Civil Rights Compliance Office to develop guidance on permitting and cumulative impacts related to Title VI.
- Develop and implement a plan to complete systematic compliance reviews to determine full compliance with the Title VI program.
- Develop metrics to assess the effectiveness of the Cooperative Federalism pilot and other technical assistance efforts, such as the procedural safeguards checklist. Revise these tools and programs as needed based on the metrics.
- Verify that EPA funding applicants address potential noncompliance with Title VI with a written agreement before the funds are awarded.
- Determine how to use existing or new data to identify and target funding recipients for proactive compliance reviews, and develop or update policy, guidance, and standard operating procedures for collecting and using those data.
- Develop and deliver training for the deputy civil rights officials and EPA regional staff that focuses on their respective roles and responsibilities within the EPA’s Title VI program.”
The OIG reports that all six recommendations remain unresolved, with no management decision reached.
The EPA’s top management challenges
- Maintaining operations during pandemic and natural disaster responses.
There are three open and four unresolved recommendations with relevant notes to address this challenge.
“EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan has discarded the return to-office schedule of the prior administration while the EPA assesses the situation,” states the OIG report.
2. Complying with key internal control requirements.
Internal control requirements are necessary to ensure the EPA utilizes quality data and maintains effective operational policies and procedures.
There are 62 open and nine unresolved recommendations to address this challenge.
Examples of deficiencies in need of correcting include improved follow-up on late Toxics Release Inventory data reports from industry, improved controls to safeguard against the removal or loss of agency records, and enhanced verification processes for emissions monitoring systems.
“Internal controls affect all other management challenges,” according to the OIG. “The high number of recommendations in this area will be an OIG consideration in the development of future management challenges.”
3. Overseeing states, territories, and tribes responsible for implementing EPA programs.
There are 19 open and 3 unresolved recommendations to address this challenge.
“The pandemic affected the ability of EPA staff to perform some in-person oversight duties,” the OIG says.
4. Improving workforce/workload analyses to accomplish the EPA’s mission efficiently and effectively.
There are currently four open recommendations to address this challenge.
“The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the entire federal government has regressed in this area after years of progress and that this is a high-risk issue because mission-critical skills gaps impede the government from cost-effectively serving the public and achieving results,” the OIG adds. “The EPA has reported to the OIG that it faces significant workforce issues. Specifically, the EPA is concerned about having appropriate staff at the appropriate grade levels.”
5. Enhancing information technology security to combat cyberthreats.
There are currently four open recommendations to address this challenge.
With more remote work teams due to COVID, the OIG notes that cybercrime is on the rise. Water and wastewater systems, in particular, “have suffered a range of attacks, such as ransomware, the tampering with Industrial Control Systems, the manipulation of valve and flow operations and chemical treatment formulations, and other efforts to disrupt and potentially destroy operations,” according to the OIG. “Implementing cybersecurity best practices is critical for water and wastewater utilities.”
6. Communicating risks to allow the public to make informed decisions about its health and the environment.
There are currently 10 open and one unresolved recommendation to address this challenge.
“This challenge is closely related to environmental justice, as disadvantaged communities cannot make fully informed decisions without receiving vital information on environmental issues that could affect their health,” according to the OIG.
7. Fulfilling mandated reporting requirements.
There are currently eight open and two unresolved recommendations to address this challenge.
“The EPA is responsible for submitting reports to Congress under several environmental statutes,” the OIG says. “When the EPA does not fulfill a requirement for a statutorily mandated report, the Agency is in violation of the law.”
8. Integrating and leading environmental justice across the Agency and government.
There are currently six unresolved recommendations to address this challenge.
“Environmental justice is a stated focus of the new administration and an overarching challenge,” according to the OIG. “The EPA needs to enhance its consideration of environmental justice across programs and regions. The EPA also needs to provide leadership in this area.”
Additional report content
The compendium also reports:
- The EPA has completed 31 recommendations from the prior semiannual report to Congress.
- Sixty-three of the current open recommendations are to improve administrative and business functions.
- Forty-eight of the current open recommendations are to improve human health and the environment.
- Details on 27 OIG recommendations where corrective actions that have taken three or more years to complete.
- The breakdown of open recommendations by region and program office.
- The expected benefits of all open recommendations.