Washington, DC April 6, 2017 – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is endangering children’s health through sloppy enforcement of lead-safe home repair rules, according to an EPA whistleblower disclosure filed through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). This week, the U.S. Special Counsel found “a substantial likelihood” that the whistleblower disclosure shows not only violations but also a “specific danger to public health” and has directed EPA to respond.
The person blowing the whistle is Elizabeth Wilde, a Lead Advisor at EPA’s Southeastern Regional Office in Atlanta, to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on April 27, 2016. A nearly 30-year veteran of the agency, Ms. Wilde has since retired.
Lead paint in older homes, day-care centers, and other child-occupied buildings is a major lead exposure pathway for an estimated 1.4 million U.S. children every year. EPA regulations require that repair and renovation of these older buildings must be done in a lead-safe manner, so that lead particles do not permeate carpets, drapes, and other surfaces. OSC concluded that this program in the Southeast –
• Failed to identify which inspected units were child-occupied;
• Routinely conducted faulty inspections by un-credentialed, inadequately trained staff; and
• Compromised enforcement by failing to collect documentary evidence or maintain files.
“Proper inspections are needed to prevent children and pregnant women from inhaling or ingesting lead-laden paint chips and dust,” stated Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of PEER, whose lawsuit a decade ago forced EPA to adopt these rules. “This type of eco-malpractice puts public health in jeopardy.”
Epitomizing EPA’s lackadaisical approach was the revelation that scores of enforcement casefiles were missing. EPA’s Inspector General (IG) found the files had been recycled. Despite a referral for prosecution by its IG for criminal destruction of official records, EPA took no disciplinary action and only verbally counseled one employee on “the critical nature of records management,” according to a memo PEER obtained. Further, EPA managers knew about the missing records for more than a year but did nothing, possibly because the office had no adequate filing system.
“The Trump administration says it wants to refocus the EPA to concentrate on protecting people and the environment. Here is a golden opportunity to start fulfilling that promise,” added Ruch, noting that the proposed Trump budget for EPA cuts lead exposure prevention programs at both the federal and state levels. “This unglamorous public health work is precisely where EPA should focus, not retreat.”
OSC has directed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to conduct a formal investigation and report back in 60 days. Ms. Wilde will have the opportunity to review and comment on EPA’s response. The Special Counsel then decides whether the EPA response is complete and reasonable, transmitting that conclusion to the President and Congress.