As the triple disaster in Japan turns a spotlight on the U.S. capacity to respond to a similar crisis at home, U.S. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins is contemplating taking another look at parts of his agency's emergency response preparations that have raised red flags in the past.
For example, with a Japanese nuclear reactor spewing radioactive particles into the atmosphere, the White House and EPA have relied heavily on the national Radiation Ambient Monitoring System -- which continuously checks U.S. air for radiation -- to determine if exposure in the United States should warrant concern. But an EPA IG report from January 2009 found that the full implementation of the RadNet system was behind schedule and that further delays were possible to allow time to modify some monitors.
"As a result, the agency may have less information about the levels of radiation should a national radiological or nuclear emergency occur," the report stated.
And then there is a January 2008 IG report on EPA's national emergency response planning efforts: "While EPA has a proven track record of responding effectively to serious environmental situations, those situations are limited in scope and severity when compared to suggested incidents of national significance," such as, say, a major earthquake.
The IG found EPA's emergency response plan, which was developed by the agency's Emergency Management Office in 2006, was "too limited and unstructured" to prepare EPA to roll out an effective national disaster response while also maintaining its day-to-day functions.
"I suspect it's time to look at that again," said Elkins, who has been on the job for about nine months and recently sat down for an interview at EPA headquarters.
Elkins said there are plenty of other issues stemming from the Japan disaster that could be worthy of the office's special brand of environmental protection, but that even with the broad level of independence granted to his office, he still has to bow to budget restraints.
"In a perfect world where ... money is no object, there's lots of things that we can do," Elkins said. "But we don't live in that world. We live in a different world right now."
It is a world where the IG's investigative dollars are already being stretched.
Two days before the Obama administration's budget was released in February, Elkins sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget in which he expressed concern that the White House had submitted a fiscal 2012 request for his office that was more than $5 million below what he had requested.
Elkins is currently trying to stem a rising tide of cyberattacks at the agency, and it is an expensive project that requires specialized skills and machinery (E&ENews PM, March 2). Between that effort and many other projects competing for resources in his office, Elkins said in his letter that the approximately $46 million that the president proposed for his office is simply not enough.
Obama's proposal is more than the office got under the George W. Bush administration, when the IG's budget ticked up from about $34 million to around $40 million over eight years.
But as the budgeting process plays out on Capitol Hill, Elkins said last week that he is trying to make sure his staff remains focused on doing the best it can with what it has by investigating the biggest and most substantive issues facing the agency.
One of those issues, he said, is EPA's ongoing failure to ensure that its approximately 18,500 employees are being put to the best use.
Human resource management has been an ongoing problem that is on display when -- as the IG's office found numerous examples of in recent years -- staff members are assigned to certain projects without thought as to whether they have the proper skills to do the job (Greenwire, Feb. 24).
But Elkins said it is a problem that could come back to haunt EPA if the worst happens and a disaster on the scale of the Japanese crisis hits the United States.
EPA must ensure "that the human resources are in place to be able to respond effectively ... whether or not it's a national catastrophic event or whether it's a localized event," he said.
Congress as customer
Elkins, 61, is the first Senate-confirmed IG at EPA since Nikki Tinsley stepped down in 2006.
Before his appointment, Elkins was an associate general counsel at EPA where he served in the Office of General Counsel's Information Law Practice, Employment Law Practice and Intellectual Property Law Practice. He also spent about five years working as counsel to the inspector general at the National Science Foundation.
When he took over the EPA IG post last summer, the office was still finding its footing after both a prolonged vacancy in its top post and an effort under the Bush administration to sideline the EPA watchdog.
In the summer of 2008 the then-chief of staff in EPA's enforcement and compliance office sent what amounted to a gag order to top agency officials directing them to instruct their staffs not to speak with the inspector general's office or congressional investigators without first checking with public affairs officials. The incident prompted an outcry on and off Capitol Hill.
Now-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson added her voice to that criticism during her confirmation hearing and, not long after taking over the agency, issued a memorandum instructing all staff to comply with auditors. Jackson said EPA staff are not required to obtain permission before speaking to OIG representatives during reviews and managers should not question employees about their interactions with OIG in the context of reviews (Greenwire, Aug. 10, 2009).
Those efforts have gone a long way toward ensuring the crucial independence his office needs to do its job effectively, Elkins said.
But, he added, the office has to remain vigilant to guard against any effort that would impede its efforts to bring issues to light.
"Our mission is the same mission the agency has," Elkins said. "Our focus is on protecting human health and the environment."
Elkins and his staff of about 350 accomplish that goal by using their independence within EPA to "ask the tough questions" to bring incidents of waste to light and ensure the agency is running in the most efficient way possible.
While his law background has seen him serve as a public defender, prosecutor and chief legal officer in previous local and federal postings, Elkins analogized his current job to that of a newspaper reporter.
"We investigate, we report on what we find, we have our sources. ... We want to make sure the story is right," he said.
What Elkins is not is a political animal.
When asked about the impact his investigations and audits have on the hot-button debates on Capitol Hill over EPA operational or policy decisions, Elkins immediately retreats back to the definition of his job under the guidelines laid out in the 1978 Inspector General Act.
But while he tries to shun the politics, that does not mean Elkins also shuns politicians.
Elkins views Congress as one of his most important customers, and early in his tenure he made an effort to reach out to politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Those efforts may be part of the reason that seven lawmakers have already reached out to him for help in conducting their oversight and investigation efforts.
The requests have included a review of how the agency handles Freedom of Information Act inquires at the behest of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and an effort to gather information on a lead-contaminated Superfund site in Omaha for Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.).
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, recently requested Elkins' help in preserving documents in the agency's ongoing dispute with the state of Texas over gas-drilling permits. Inhofe had already approached Elkins last fall for a request involving mountaintop-removal coal mining permits in Appalachia.
Gulf spill investigations
At a time when EPA and its allies are trying to hold the line against deep budget cuts proposed by House Republicans, Elkins' reports can sometimes have unintended consequences.
For example, Elkins' recent report on the agency's failures to manage the human resources it already has isn't likely to help agency brass make the case that certain proposed Republican cuts go too far.
Meanwhile, the IG's office is in the process of putting out a couple other reports that are sure to find their way into political discussions.
The agency is conducting an audit of the decisionmaking behind the use of dispersants during the cleanup effort on last year's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmental and public-health groups have long aired concerns that the soup of toxic chemicals from gushing crude and oil dispersants could cause long-term health problems for Gulf cleanup workers.
The IG report, which is set to come out in the next few months, won't focus on the health effects of using those chemicals but will provide information on who made the decisions to use the dispersants and what scientific data they had on hand when they made that decision.
Another evaluation is looking into the recovery of costs that EPA incurred as a result of the spill and a third study is looking into EPA's role in managing the waste left over from the spill to ensure that it was properly disposed of or recycled.
With the one year anniversary of the spill coming up next month and finger-pointing continuing over the disaster, those reports could become fodder for a group whose agenda may be something other than simply minimizing waste, fraud and abuse.
Elkins said that is not something he worries about.
"We publish our reports in the public domain," Elkins said. "Anybody can take those reports and do with them as they will. Our purpose is to educate, to inform. What folks do with the reports after they leave our office, there's not much I personally can do about that."