Josh Denmark / CBP file photo

Watchdog: EPA Needs to Improve Management of Environmental Program Along the U.S.-Mexico Border 

Documentation of progress was “frequently unreliable” and program information was “neither transparent nor accessible,” said the report.

The Environmental Protection Agency needs to improve its documentation, communication and public reporting for a joint program with Mexico to protect environmental conditions along the approximately 2,000-mile Southwest border, an inspector general said on Tuesday.

The “Border 2020 Program," which runs from August 2012 to December 2021, is an initiative between the EPA and Mexico to work on grant-funded projects to reduce pollution, enhance water quality, promote waste management, prepare for emergency disasters, improve public health and tackle other environmental initiatives along the border that spans California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It is the fourth iteration of the 1983 La Paz Agreement between the two countries to protect and conserve the environment in the border region, which has about 15 million people and is expected to double in population by 2025, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

“Although it is a binational program, the EPA is responsible for a significant portion of the effort, and, therefore, has the responsibility to ensure that the program is meeting its established goals and objectives,” said the inspector general report. “We found that the EPA is missing management controls that would support its ability to demonstrate progress toward achieving the program’s environmental and public health goals and objectives. We also found that the Border 2020 Program also faces challenges regarding transparency.”

The IG said that required action plans, which outline the program accomplishments in the four regions, are inconsistent in format and lack information on funding and project status. “Action plans that do not detail the related objective or sub-objective make it difficult to determine the linkage between project accomplishments and the Border 2020 Program progress,” said the IG. “Omitting goal language or objective language without further details on why leads to confusion regarding what the Border 2020 Program is doing from year to year.”

Additionally, the IG found the action plans from the EPA’s policy groups (air, water, waste, emergency response and compliance assistance) have not been updated, although they are supposed to be every two years, according to the program's communications strategy. Only a draft version from 2013 is available, “therefore, no recent accomplishment data, funding amounts, or status information are provided,” said the IG.  

The watchdog also found that the most recent update on the environmental quality conditions along the border is a 2016 interim report. A new report was supposed to be published in 2018, but the IG found the EPA staff “no longer had the resources to develop an additional indicator report,” so, “the program remains unable to determine whether it is accomplishing its stated goals and objectives.”

Lastly, the IG said that the agency does not share sufficient information, reports and other metrics with the public, which is counter to its 2018–2022 strategic plan and the program’s communication strategy. “Without this information, the program is less transparent and stakeholders do not know what the EPA has funded and for what purpose,” said the report.

Program staff told the IG they need permission from the North American Development Bank (the EPA grantee for the program) to provide the public with project fact sheets and accomplishments, but the bank said that is not the case. 

The IG also said the program’s website, “does not provide a clear cumulative way for the public to identify the universe of funded projects, the project results, or how each of these projects contribute to the Border 2020 Program goals and objectives.”  

These issues are not new to the border program as the IG issued similar reports in and March 2008 and September 2008 for previous iterations. The IG conducted the latest audit from July to December 2019 by interviewing program and regional staff members, reviewing policies and procedures since 2013, and conducting site visits. 

As a result of the study, it made five recommendations on how to improve the reporting, communications, performance tracking and transparency of the program. The agency concurred with the recommendations and gave the IG a corrective action plan.

The report comes as President Trump is repeatedly touting the progress in constructing a border wall between the United States and Mexico to prevent illegal immigration. In November 2018, over 170 environmental groups wrote to then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen with concerns that the wall would harm ecosystems and wildlife.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration said it would waive federal procurement regulations in order to speed up wall construction by citing a 2005 law, which it previously used to circumvent environmental regulations.

Kentia Elbaum, an EPA inspector general spokeswoman, told Government Executive it “was beyond the scope of our work” to answer questions on the differences of the border program under the Obama and Trump administrations and how, if at all, construction of Trump's border wall impacted the environmental program and its management.