Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials refuse to fix a problem they admit exists even though it could force taxpayers to cover a $6 billion cleanup bill for pollution disasters, a government watchdog reported Thursday.
Officials are required to ensure polluters can pay clean up costs for their environmental messes, according to the agency’s inspector general (IG), but EPA lacks financial data it needs to know how much the offender has paid.
“We became aware of significant data gaps … that pose a risk to the EPA and taxpayers,” the IG said. “The EPA is aware of the poor quality of its data and the resulting vulnerabilities. Despite the EPA’s awareness of this risk, it has not taken meaningful steps to address the problem.”
Of the $9.1 billion needed from the responsible companies to cleanup nearly 700 contaminated sites around the country, EPA didn’t know if the responsible firms can pay $6.1 billion of the final bill.
One site under the agency’s superfund program, for example, will cost $108 million to restore to environmental health. The EPA, however, only got $29 million from the polluting company, creating a $79 million shortfall that will fall on taxpayers.
“There is a risk that taxpayer dollars could be used if responsible parties do not have the necessary funds to cover cleanups at contaminated facilities when needed,” the IG said. “This situation overall can result in delayed cleanups, longer human and environmental exposures to unsafe substances and longer restrictions on public use of needed natural resources.”
The IG also noted EPA has kept this known problem from Congress for five years, despite being required by law to report it.
EPA officials disagreed with the IG’s findings and refused to follow the watchdog’s recommendations.
Agency officials rejected the watchdog’s estimates of costs firms could cover, but “the EPA could not provide any other data on financial assurance to support its disagreement,” the IG said. EPA refused to implement the recommended fixes.
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