WASHINGTON, DC, Sept. 28, 2016 – A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office was throwing away files of active and closed enforcement cases, according to a report from the agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG) released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite a finding of criminal handling of official records and a referral for prosecution, the EPA took no disciplinary action and instead only “verbally counseled” one employee on “the critical nature of records management.”
The IG investigation arose from a whistleblower in EPA’s Atlanta Regional Office reporting missing inspections, notices of violation, and noncompliance files from the agency’s program to ensure lead safe residential repairs and renovation. Scores of files from open and closed cases were discovered piled in a recycling bin. The June 21, 2016 report found that in addition to improper disposal of original records –
- Despite agency policies, the office had no system or “internal controls” for file management;
- Although EPA managers knew about the missing records for more than a year “no significant effort was undertaken to locate the missing files, or institute procedures to protect the remaining files…” ; and
- The agency only took steps when its enforcement goals were compromised because the paperwork supporting its projected number of “case commitments” was missing.
“This case involves the program meant to close the main pathway through which people, especially children and pregnant women, are exposed to lead: inhaling or ingesting lead-laden paint chips or dust in older housing,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, who obtained the report through the Freedom of Information Act. “This report shows EPA again dropping the ball on protecting public health.”
Disposing of original documents would not only preclude pursuit of a pending enforcement action; trashing closed cases would prevent imposing more serious penalties on repeat violators – because the evidence of the prior violation had been destroyed. In addition, disappearance of inspection records prevents later review to confirm what was inspected and the thoroughness of any site walk-through. It is unclear why an EPA employee would think that original enforcement records should be recycled.
The IG sent its findings to Alana Black, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, “for prosecutorial consideration” of criminal concealment and removal of federal records. She declined prosecution and the report was referred both to the EPA Atlanta Office and its Office of General Counsel for “administrative action as deemed appropriate.” EPA, however, only “counseled” one employee after “consultation with the Labor Relations Specialist,” according to an agency memo.
“Incredibly, EPA undertook no review of its managers who allowed and tolerated trashing enforcement records,” added Dumais, noting that EPA Headquarters ignored the report and let the office responsible for the breakdown decide the ultimate disposition of the matter. “At EPA, accountability is apparently recycled, as well.”