EPA labs lack proper inspections, watchdog says


Aug. 14, 2023

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General has published a new report finding that the agency has consistently failed to verify whether agency laboratories comply with hazardous waste requirements.

The OIG and hazardous waste

  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) is the agency’s independent investigation group. OIG investigates and audits different EPA practices and issues to confirm that the agency abides by the different statutes that bind it. In addition, OIG releases reports on the different management concerns and investigations that the office undertakes. These reports also include recommendations on what the agency can do to better address internal or external issues in the future.
  • The EPA regulates hazardous waste mostly under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act(RCRA). RCRA defines hazardous waste as “a waste with properties that make it dangerous or capable of having a harmful effect on human health or the environment.” Under RCRA, the EPA may authorize states to implement certain provisions of the law. However, if a state program does not exist, the EPA will implement RCRA’s hazardous waste provisions in the state, including permitting, enforcement, and corrective actions.
  • Hazardous waste generators must abide by certain standards, mostly found at 40 C.F.R. Part 262. These regulations require that hazardous waste generators identify and safely store and dispose of hazardous waste to protect human health and the environment. As the amount of hazardous waste generated rises, so do the requirements under EPA regulations. Large generators of hazardous waste will have additional regulatory and recordkeeping requirements as compared to small or very small generators of the same waste.
  • The EPA (and authorized states) also conduct inspections and compliance monitoring activities for different hazardous waste facilities under their jurisdiction. These can include on-sight inspections or a review of the RCRA documentation process. Authorized states conduct approximately 95% of these inspections per year. EPA labs are similarly subject to audits and self-assessments to confirm that the labs comply with applicable regulations, including those for hazardous waste. The agency also includes self-reporting disclosures, which incentivize labs to self-disclose violations of EPA regulations and federal laws, which may lead to reduced civil penalties for failure to abide by applicable regulations.
  • The EPA currently operates 27 labs around the country that are hazardous waste generators. Of the 27, only four are considered large quantity generators, with 13 small quantity generators and 10 very small quantity generators. Therefore, the regulatory requirements across the labs the EPA operates differ, with the majority of labs having a lower regulatory burden than the four large quantity generators.
  • In 2020 and 2021, the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) issued different memorandums to EPA staff on environmental compliance for EPA labs. These memos stated that OECA had observed RCRA violations at several EPA labs and stressed that compliance assistance was available for these labs. The second memorandum built upon the first, emphasizing the EPA’s requirements to work under RCRA, in addition to compliance with other federal statutes like the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA).
  • In a May 2021 report, OIG discovered “persistent concerns” regarding safety and health audits and management reviews in EPA labs, as well as issues with hazardous waste management and noncompliance with safety measures. OIG released a second report in June 2022 which stated that the EPA did not have adequate internal controls for reviewing the agency’s disclosure data system and “risked missing significant concerns in the submissions” to the system.

Insights from the report

  • On August 14th, 2023, OIG released a report that focused on the EPA’s compliance with hazardous waste requirements at its labs. OIG explained that after OECA became aware of potential hazardous waste compliance issues at different EPA labs, it began tracking to see whether labs would comply with RCRA regulations. However, OIG determined that as of August 2022, OECA had still not inspected most EPA labs to confirm that they complied with applicable hazardous waste generator requirements. In addition, OIG noticed that one of the EPA’s labs did not meet an EPA deadline to notify the agency of its status as a hazardous waste generator in 2021, in addition to other reporting requirement violations.
  • Overall, OIG found that OECA did not verify compliance of EPA labs with RCRA regulations. In the years since the 2020 and 2021 memorandums, OECA has only inspected three labs. Six labs were inspected between 2010 and 2019, but two-thirds (18) of the EPA’s labs have either never been inspected or were inspected prior to 2010. In addition, OECA had no mechanisms to track and verify compliance with RCRA at different EPA labs. OECA stated that it had “limited inspection resources” and that the EPA labs that were potentially noncompliant were not “priorities” during inspection planning and targeting procedures. OIG pushed back against this, arguing that the agency (or an authorized state) should have been able to conduct inspections, as the agency and authorized states conducted more than 11,000 onsite RCRA inspections in both 2020 and 2021.
  • EPA labs missed information reporting deadlines. Both small and large quantity generators (one of each) failed to report required information to the EPA on time. The small lab failed to renotify the EPA of its status as a generator of hazardous waste. The large quantity generator failed to file the required RCRA biennial reports in 2017 and 2019, as required. Although the lab did provide that information when requested by OIG, it provided this information in 2022, at least three years after the most recent report was due. In addition, the EPA labs informed OIG that they had missed the deadline “due to a lack of knowledge of the requirements or a lack of internal controls,” indicating that the EPA labs are not keyed into the requirements of the very agency that operates them.
  • EPA labs also failed to report any of the potential violations via the agency’s disclosure system. The agency’s audit policy recommends that the labs voluntarily disclose and perform corrective actions for violations in the labs. Staff interviewed by OIG noted that they were confused on what violations to report and who they should report those violations.

Lessons and impacts of the report

  • OECA responded to the report on June 1, 2023. The office responded positively to the report, agreeing with OIG on the importance of EPA labs complying with all applicable environmental regulatory requirements. OECA stated that these labs should perform better than, and be a model for, other regulated entities.
  • Overall, the report touches on many issues that the agency faces in several different areas. These include understaffing, technical issues, and internal confusion about reporting requirements. The EPA will generally respond to the issues detailed in OIG reports that it agrees with OIG’s findings and will implement changes to fix the problem areas. However, the issues that OIG continually finds speak to a deeper level of dysfunction within the organization. The agency will likely continue to have similar reports come out on different aspects of agency planning and will likely continue to need to “play catch up” on following its own regulations.

To contact the author of this analysis, please email Walker Livingston.
To contact the editor of this analysis, please email Scott Stephens.

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