WASHINGTON - March 21- Without waiting for congressional approval, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving this month to significantly downsize its Office of Inspector General (IG), according to agency memos released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The cutbacks will reduce the ability of the IG to audit Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contracting, investigate EPA enforcement actions and review allegations of political manipulation of agency science.
Under the continuing resolution passed by Congress last month to fund EPA and most other non-defense agencies through the current fiscal year (FY07) which began this past October, the EPA-IG actually received a slight ($900,000) increase. In his proposed budget for FY08, however, President Bush would cut the IG budget by $5.1 million — the equivalent of a 10% budget reduction.
EPA managers are rushing to implement these proposed cuts now. It is unstated how displaced IG staff will be replaced if Congress later nixes the President’s proposed reduction. The reductions include –
- Early retirements though buy-outs of senior auditor, criminal investigator, chemist and administrative positions;
- Possible lay-offs (Reductions-In-Force) and closures of branch offices; and
- A hiring freeze that precludes replacement of specialists who retire or resign.
“If ever an agency needed a strong Office of Inspector General, it is the EPA in 2007,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the recent string of agency scandals ranging from the World Trade Center warnings to the horrific asbestos tragedies in Libby, Montana. “The tremendous impact that EPA decisions have on peoples’ lives deserves independent scrutiny from auditors and other investigators who can shred agency technical double-talk and get to the bottom of problems.”
Under the previous EPA Inspector General, Nikki Tinsley, the IG gained a reputation for some independence, issuing a series of blistering reports about controversial EPA actions. Since her departure early last year, there has been no permanent replacement. The current Bush nominee, Alex Beehler, a Defense Department official linked to attempts to exempt Pentagon operations from environmental laws, was blocked in the last session of Congress. Beehler has been re-nominated in the current session, but his prospects for confirmation remain cloudy.
The cutbacks are being carried out by Acting IG Bill Roderick under orders from EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.
“It is not surprising that the last thing the Bush administration values is aggressive investigation into corporate pollution offenses and the political collusion that lubricates them,” added Ruch, pointing that the cuts are taking place now, months before Congress is scheduled to finish work on the FY08 budget. “Congress should be consulted before irreversible steps are taken.”
In the face of congressional protests, during the past few weeks, EPA has set aside plans to cut its network of scientific laboratories and put further closures of its technical libraries on hold.