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EPA Watchdog: Oversight ‘More Important Than Ever’ With Infrastructure Package

A specific oversight plan for the new funding is likely forthcoming. 

Due to the massive funding increase from the recently enacted infrastructure package, oversight is “more important than ever before,” said the watchdog for the Environmental Protection Agency in a recent interview. 

The EPA inspector general office will probably release an oversight plan specific to the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was enacted on November 15, EPA IG Sean O’Donnell told reporters during a roundtable interview on December 10. The IG office is receiving approximately $270 million in “no year” funding, meaning it isn’t tied to fiscal years, but they want to stretch the money out about 10 years in order to track the EPA’s spending. 

“We have our work cut out for us,” he said, in reference to concerns on how EPA has handled money in the past, particularly grants. Under the infrastructure package, the EPA will receive about $60 billion, about $55 billion of which will go to state and tribal grants. 

“A vast majority of the EPA’s funding geared for infrastructure improvements is distributed to states, tribes, and nongovernmental organizations through grants, loans, and contracts,” said a report from the watchdog’s office in November on EPA’s top challenges for fiscal 2022. An example of a past issue is that “we found that, as of September 2019, the EPA had $8.3 million in undisbursed balances for grant awards that have been expired for one year or more. These funds could have been used toward EPA environmental goals related to infrastructure investments.” 

With the new funding the EPA IG office is looking to bring on the equivalent of more than 120 additional full-time employees, plus some temporary employees and contractors, said O’Donnell. “Hiring is an incredible challenge,” so they’re trying to be “forward looking” in order to put a pipeline in place to account for natural attrition, he added. This would add 40% more staff, according to E&E News. 

At EPA, “the coolest place here is in the [Office of Inspector General],” which he hopes others see as well.

For now, the office released on December 14 its overall oversight plan for fiscal 2022, which it developed in part based on the EPA’s top management challenges for fiscal 2022, released last month. “Managing Infrastructure Funding and Business Operations,” between President Biden’s budget proposal for fiscal 2022 and the infrastructure package, is one of them.

EPA did not respond for comment on the watchdog office’s plans by the time of this article’s publication.

O’Donnell said the recent memo from the Office of Management and Budget about how agencies can have better communication and collaboration with their IGs was “helpful, appropriate.” Also, “I think it will help our relationship with the agency in a number of ways.” 

On cooperation from EPA offices from the Trump to Biden administrations, “by and large it's gotten better,” said O’Donnell. “The tone from the top by the leadership usually sets forth the organization’s cultural environment and values,” he said in a follow-up statement. “Relative to the OIG, it is critical for leadership to encourage employees to act in accordance with compliance and policy requirements.” 

O’Donnell said he doesn’t meet as often with EPA Administrator Michael Regan as he would like to, but he enjoys speaking with him. 

The IG is in a unique situation as he has also been serving as the acting IG for the Defense Department since April 2020. He said he's brought some of the planning tools from the Defense Department office over to the EPA IG office and has developed a “rhythm” in having the dual IG roles. However, he agreed that being an acting IG has its own challenges. E&E News explored some of those challenges in a recent article. 

On November 15, Biden announced his intent to nominate Robert Storch, currently IG for the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, for Defense IG.