Watchdog: EPA behind on hazardous waste inspections

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) isn’t meeting its legal obligation to inspect every facility that handles hazardous waste, the agency’s watchdog said.

In a Friday report, the EPA’s office of the inspector general said the agency had a 91 percent inspection rate for hazardous waste treatment, storage and disposal sites in fiscal 2014, based on investigators’ sampling.

But while the overall rate was high and close to the 100 percent statutory requirement, the auditors found a great deal of variation among the types of facilities.

Specifically, 94 percent of private sites got full inspections, as did 85 percent of federal sites, but just 54 percent of state and local facilities were inspected, the report said.

The inspections are the fundamental method the EPA uses to monitor compliance with federal hazardous waste rules, which dictate everything from creation to disposal of materials that are designated as hazardous.

About 80 percent of Americans live with three miles of such a facility, and 50 percent live within a mile. The country has about 60,000 hazardous waste facilities.

The inspections “have identified violations, such as the storage of hazardous waste in an unpermitted area and failure to minimize the possibility of the release of hazardous waste,” the report found.

In response to the findings, the EPA’s compliance office told auditors that the shortcomings are “due to resource limitations caused by other competing priorities, such as inspector training or state oversight activities.” But the agency couldn’t say how much more money or staffing it would need to fulfill its duties fully.

Cynthia Giles, head of enforcement and compliance at the EPA, disagreed with the report.

In a formal response, she said the EPA has properly prioritized its limited resources. Furthermore, the sites with low inspection rates are those with the least risks, primarily because they only store waste.

“We think the Agency has done a good job focusing resources on the biggest risks and addressing the biggest problems, and that we are strategically managing the national program to reduce the risk of harm to human health and the environment,” she said.