‘Significant Management Challenge’
The report also found that EPA’s oversight of states, territories, and tribes that are delegated to implement federal laws remains a “significant management challenge.”
Some improvements have been made, such as an increase in the number of detailed reviews of states’ drinking water programs, the inspector general said. But problems persist in other areas, most notably illustrated in a July 2018 inspector general’s report that found improper management controls that could have led to better decision-making during the Flint, Mich., water crisis. EPA is taking corrective actions in that case, the report noted.
The inspector general’s finding highlights a longstanding tension between national consistency and regional flexibility, said Stan Meiburg, EPA’s acting deputy administrator during parts of the Obama administration.
“That’s embedded in federalism,” said Meiburg, now a sustainability professor at Wake Forest University. “The OIG leans heavier on national consistency, and the agency tends to say you need to leave some discretion.”
Many of the problems the report found have been lingering for years, he said.
On July 11, EPA released guidance to its regional offices giving states a stronger voice in environmental inspections and enforcement actions.
Workload Issues Persist
Workload issues also continue to be a problem, dating back to well before Trump took office, the report found.
To illustrate its point, the inspector general cited shortcomings in the agency’s inspections of asbestos in schools and Superfund cleanup work, which it said were attributable to a lack of personnel.
Rena Steinzor, former president of the Center for Progressive Reform, agreed that most of the report’s findings can be traced back to staffing cuts at EPA.
“They don’t have the people that they need,” said Steinzor, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. “There’s nobody home in a lot of places.”
EPA had 14,172 staffers in fiscal 2019, a 32-year low. During the Obama administration, EPA’s staff averaged about 16,000.
“The agency doesn’t have the manpower to do the things it needs to do,” Meiburg agreed. “Even when they were at 15,000, they didn’t.”
But the report left open the possibility that the staffing cuts could be a “natural and justifiable progression” because the EPA has already completed several major rules and handed off responsibility to the states.