Environment & Energy Report

EPA Data Quality System Has Fallen to Wayside, Watchdog Reports

June 22, 2020, 7:56 PM

The EPA may be masking risks to health and the environment because its Quality System has become outdated and inaccurate, the agency’s internal watchdog reported on Monday.

Since 2015, $1.3 million has been spent on a tracking system for the Quality System, which provides requirements for managing the quality of all environmental data at the EPA, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

But five years later, the status of the Quality System is unknown.

The OIG’s performance audit, conducted from September to April, reviewed the EPA’s policies and procedures and interviewed staff responsible for the Quality System.

The staff oversee the quality systems that each EPA office implements. Responsibility for the Quality System rests with the EPA’s Office of Mission Support.

The OIG warned that “for the public, data quality directly impacts decision quality, and poor data quality can mask risks to public health. Quality data helps the Agency make reliable, cost-effective, and defensible decisions.”

The EPA said it is reviewing the Quality System and incorporating many of the inspector general’s recommendations.

Inspector General Findings

The OIG found that the Office of Mission Support “has not developed a strategic plan, defined objectives, provided oversight via annual reporting, or adequately assessed the workload for the Quality System staff.”

The OIG also said the office hasn’t implemented a tracking system to monitor the Quality System and evaluate it.

According to the report, OMS said the tracking system would have replaced about 80 systems used by different sectors within the agency. But due to its poor implementation, some organizations have said they plan to continue with their individual systems.

The OMS also hasn’t reviewed policies within their required time frame, the report said.

In the report, 12 of 25 people interviewed said they were concerned that the system was understaffed. The 53% staffing loss over the past two decades has resulted in a backlog, causing lapses in key responsibilities like reviewing overdue policies and procedures, the report said.

EPA Responds

The EPA said in a statement that it began a “top to bottom review and overhaul” of the Quality System late last summer, “which included addressing many of the same issues OIG has raised in its recent report recommendations.”

“EPA is glad to incorporate the OIG’s recommendations into its overall plan for the Quality program as the Agency continues to strengthen it and quality management activities for all our environmental information, collection, production, evaluation, or use,” the statement added.

OIG offered 15 recommendations. Thirteen of them are either completed or resolved with corrective actions pending, according to an agency spokesperson. Planned completion dates for the recommendations come as soon as December, and as late as June 2025.

Two recommendations concerning a tracking system are still being discussed with the OIG.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexandra Yetter in Washington at ayetter@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at gHenderson@bloombergindustry.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergindustry.com

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