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The EPA's watchdog is warning about oversight for billions in new climate spending

A sign touting the Inflation Reduction Act is seen at Glynwood Boat House in Cold Spring, N.Y., on Aug. 17, 2022.
Michael M. Santiago
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Getty Images
A sign touting the Inflation Reduction Act is seen at Glynwood Boat House in Cold Spring, N.Y., on Aug. 17, 2022.

At a hearing before a House committee on Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog warned lawmakers that the agency's recent surge in funding — part of President Biden's climate policy spending — comes with "a high risk for fraud, waste and abuse."

The EPA — whose annual budget for 2023 is just $10 billion — has received roughly $100 billion in new, supplemental funding through two high-dollar pieces of legislation, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. The two new laws represent the largest investment in the agency's history.

Sean O'Donnell, the EPA inspector general, testified to the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the share of money tied to the latter piece of legislation — $41 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act, which passed just with Democratic votes — did not come with sufficient oversight funding. That, he said, has left his team of investigators "unable to do any meaningful IRA oversight."

The EPA has used its Biden-era windfall to launch or expand a huge range of programs, including clean drinking water initiatives, electric school bus investments and the creation of a new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights.

O'Donnell testified that the new office could be at particular risk for misspent funds. He noted that the programs and initiatives which were consolidated into the environmental justice office previously had a cumulative budget of $12 million, a number that has now ballooned more than 250-fold into a $3 billion grant portfolio.

"We have seen this before: the equation of an unprepared agency dispensing an unprecedented amount of money times a large number of struggling recipients equals a high risk of fraud, waste and abuse," O'Donnell told lawmakers.

The inspector general testified that while both the EPA and lawmakers have been supportive of his office's oversight goals, his budget hasn't kept pace with the scale of the agency's work after more than a decade of "stagnant or declining" funding from Congress.

Broader budget constraints, according to his testimony, have forced the department to "cancel or postpone work in important EPA areas, such as chemical safety and pollution cleanup" as it tries to meet increased demands tied to oversight of environmental disaster responses — like the East Palestine train derailment — and allegations of whistleblower reprisal.

In a statement, EPA spokesperson Tim Carroll told NPR that the agency appreciates the inspector general's analysis and noted that the EPA has requested new appropriations through the president's budget proposal in order to expand its oversight and fraud prevention work.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric McDaniel
Eric McDaniel edits the NPR Politics Podcast. He joined the program ahead of its 2019 relaunch as a daily podcast.
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