Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agents managed to avoid being charged with crimes after being caught red-handed official documents in a recycling bin, according to a report from an environmental watchdog group.
The EPA took no disciplinary action even after the agency’s Office of Inspector General (IG) suggested criminal charges against the culprits. Instead, the agency “verbally counseled” one employee on “the critical nature of records management.”
The IG investigation, which was obtained by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), arose from a whistleblower in EPA’s Atlanta Regional Office. The whistleblower reported missing inspections, notices of violation, and other documents from the agency’s program regulating lead levels.
“This case involves the program meant to close the main pathway through which people, especially children and pregnant women, are exposed to lead: inhaling or ingesting lead-laden paint chips or dust in older housing,” said PEER Staff Counsel Laura Dumais, who obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. “This report shows EPA again dropping the ball on protecting public health.”
The EPA has a long history of obfuscating sketchy – and sometimes criminal – behavior by its employees.
Senior EPA officials in 2015, for instance, largely ignored complaints by 16 women — mostly employees — accusing one agency official of sexual harassment. The employee got promoted despite the complaints.
The agency found itself roiled in another scandal in May 2015, when the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing showing that the EPA paid a registered sex offender to retire, rather than terminating his employment.
He was fired in 2014 for violating his probation, but the Merit Systems Protection Board reinstated him, according to EPA inspector general records. The employee was paid $55,000 to resign in 2015.
The documents obtained by PEER also contained files for a program meant to ensure residential homes are lead-free, which, of course, raises a slew of questions about how the EPA handled the Flint, Michigan water crisis.
Flint officials switched the city’s water source from Detroit to the Flint River in 2014, resulting in lead-infused water coursing through non-treated water pipes. The water subsequently poisoned scores of Flint residents, including several children.
Unearthed emails indicate the EPA knew Flint’s water was tainted in mid-2015, yet was willing to allow citizens to drink it until at least 2016.
The group’s FOIA request also showed EPA managers knew about the issue for about a year, yet no “effort was undertaken to locate the missing files, or institute procedures to protect the remaining files…”
The agency only took action when its goals for regulating certain sectors of the economy were compromised after documents containing the goal measures wound up missing.
Alana Black, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, declined prosecuting those responsible and referred the case back to the EPA Atlanta Office. EPA chose to forgo criminal charges, and forced the employee into counseling with the “Labor Relations Specialist,” according to an agency memo.
“At EPA, accountability is apparently recycled, as well,” Dumais said in a press statement Tuesday. “Incredibly, EPA undertook no review of its managers who allowed and tolerated trashing enforcement records,” she added.
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