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EPA Changes at Troubled Lab Not Fixing Problems, Workers Say

March 25, 2022, 9:30 AM

Cultural problems still plague the EPA’s Colorado forensics lab despite the agency internal watchdog’s approval this week of proposed fixes offered by EPA management, current and former lab employees said.

As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency remains at risk of not getting the scientific evidence it needs to nail down settlements and enforcement orders against corporate polluters, the current and former staffers said.

Two current employees—who declined to be identified, citing a fear of retaliation—said the National Enforcement Investigations Center is still afflicted by the same “culture of fear,” reprimands from senior management, and low staff morale that staffers reported to the agency’s inspector general last year.

The inspector general’s approval of the EPA’s proposed solutions “has to be very disappointing to NEIC staff,” said Ken Garing, a former senior team lead at the lab who retired in 2017.

“Basically, the critical issues identified in the OIG report regarding shortcomings in NEIC management will not be addressed until some point in fiscal 2023 or 2024,” Garing said. “This has the appearance of a classic stalling technique of studying something to death and hoping it goes away.”

NEIC is composed of a field branch, a lab branch, and an infrastructure and project support branch. Based in Lakewood, Colo., its scientific analyses have been used to shore up some of the EPA’s most complex criminal and civil cases.

Improvements Cited

An EPA spokesman cited “significant program improvements” at the lab, including “high-quality enforcement products that include the same type and depth of evidence as in the past, but in less time.”

The agency also hired 23 new staffers in fiscal 2021 and is projected to bring on 25 more in fiscal 2022, he said.

The inspector general accepted the agency’s proposed culture fixes at NEIC in a March 22 memo. The remedies include a pledge to evaluate, on a quarterly basis, overall job satisfaction, workers’ comfort with reporting workplace concerns to management, the general understanding of workplace priorities, and the general understanding of customer demands.

The inspector general is an independent office whose mission is to root out waste, fraud, and abuse. The office generally enjoys a strong reputation as a thorough overseer unafraid to criticize the EPA.

Jeffrey Lagda, an inspector general spokesman, said that “as always, anyone with knowledge of fraud, waste, abuse, misconduct, or mismanagement involving the EPA should contact the OIG hotline.”

‘It’s a Joke’

But Suzy Schulman, a former civil services section chief and management analyst at the center, said she believed that “EPA and OIG are trying to make nice to make this go away. It’s a joke.”

Schulman also questioned why the EPA didn’t initially propose to develop and incorporate metrics into its performance standards on the lab’s work culture, as well as safety and health, as the inspector general had requested.

Staff won’t be willing to report issues unless they can do so anonymously because of the fear of retaliation from management, she said.

The agency disagreed with parts of the inspector general’s original report, saying the watchdog hadn’t identified any cases of retaliation from management.

The EPA also cited a “continuing misunderstanding” by some staffers about the difference between reprisals and “reasonable management expectations of accountability.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com