On Thursday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a new report detailing inconsistencies in risk communication at 8 contaminated sites under the purview of the agency’s Office of Land and Emergency Management (OLEM).
The focus of this audit was on 4 specific programs within OLEM (the Emergency Response program; the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) program; the Superfund program; and the Underground Storage Tank program) with a goal to determine whether the EPA is communicating environmental sampling results or other indicators of human health risk in a manner that allows all affected parties to make decisions about managing their risks of exposure to harmful substances.
The audit, which was conducted from November 2018 to May 2021, included an in-depth look at risk communication at the Former Amphenol Corporation site in Franklin, Indiana – a site where Mundell & Associates has conducted various environmental studies and been involved in community relations for the past several years.
In addition to document reviews, staff interviews at OLEM, and discussions with officials in the respective states, the OIG held public listening sessions in the communities and distributed written questionnaires to attendees to collect perspectives on the timeliness and effectiveness of OLEM’s risk communication.
Findings of the audit showed that OLEM did not consistently communicate human health risks or adhere to existing guidance on risk communication, including the EPA’s Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication. Without a national strategy for risk communications, the various programs and regional offices lack specific guidance and are unable to communicate in a timely, coordinated and clear manner to address the human health risks and environmental justice concerns.
The OIG issued recommendations to OLEM which included implementing internal controls to (1) achieve OLEMwide, nationally consistent risk communication to improve public awareness and understanding of risks; (2) monitor its risk communication efforts; and (3) provide community members with information to manage their risks when exposed to actual or potential environmental health hazards.
OLEM responded to the audit and agreed most favorably with several of the issues present in the case of the former Amphenol site:
- there is a need for approved messaging and information regarding known and emerging contaminants to help promote consistent communication across the regions.
- site-specific information needs to be clear, upfront and kept up to date on the EPA’s website.
- EPA staff should understand and utilize more Community Involvement Coordinators.
In addition to working towards the audit’s goals, OLEM is developing a specific Environmental Justice Action Plan for risk communication in communities with environmental justice concerns such as those which are exposed to multiple sources of contamination or who have increased risks to health and other stressors, such as lower incomes and inaccessibility to healthcare.
We look forward to the positive changes from this audit to improve the EPA’s risk communication and the health of communities at contaminated sites across the country!
Read the full or summary report from the Office of the Inspector General as well as listen to a podcast overview of the report on the EPA’s website.
Short Video from the EPA OIG: