Two internal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) committees secretly control how billions of dollars are spent, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
Congress appropriates about $1 billion annually for EPA’s Superfund program, and the agency has accumulated nearly $6.8 billion in more than 1,300 slush fund-like accounts since 1990.
Two committees consisting entirely of EPA officials meet behind closed doors twice annually to decide how the agency spends those funds on highly polluted – and often dangerous – Superfund sites. All reports to and from the groups, as well as the minutes of their meetings and all other details, are kept behind closed doors.
“The National Risk-Based Priority Panel and the Superfund Special Accounts Senior Management Committee engage in pre-decisional deliberations which are internal to the agency and not open to the public,” an EPA spokeswoman who requested anonymity told The DCNF.
She was referring to Exemption Five of the Freedom of Information Act, which is the most often abused exemption federal officials cite to justify withholding information about government activities and programs.
“The public is given ample time to weigh in on during the public comment period once the site is proposed for [National Priorities List (NPL)] addition,” the spokeswoman continued. “EPA considers those comments before making a final decision.”
These committees, however, are involved in financial decisions, rather than adding a site to the NPL – how the EPA finalizes a Superfund designation, so the comment period does nothing to advance public understanding of how the two committee spending billions of tax dollars every year.
“Established in January 2009, the Special Accounts Senior Management Committee … is responsible for EPA’s national oversight and management of special accounts,” the agency’s website says. The committee “ensures appropriate management, transparency, and accountability … with special accounts.”
Yet, the committee’s work is kept secret from the public.
Meanwhile, the agency has collected $6.3 billion in approximately 1,308 special accounts from lawsuits and settlements with parties responsible for polluting superfund sites, but details beyond regional balances are withheld from the public, the DCNF previously reported.
It’s nearly impossible to determine where the estimated $3.3 billion spent so far went, or who will get the remaining $3.5 billion (after adding interest). The EPA will also continue collecting funds from new superfund sites, such as the recently proposed Gold King Mine, where the agency spilled 880,000 pounds of dangerous metals into drinking water.
Additionally, the EPA’s Inspector General has criticized numerous aspects of the special accounts, including the agency’s overall bookkeeping. The watchdog previously recommended transferring $65 million out of special accounts, for example.
The second group – the Superfund National Risk-Based Priority Panel – determines which unfunded sites require immediate attention based on several factors, such as the risk to the nearby community.
But the panel’s secrecy prevents residents from knowing where nearby hazardous places stand as an agency priority. This is particularly important, since 329 Superfund sites could expose dangerous contaminants to humans, according to EPA.
This confidentiality is necessary “to prevent polluters from taking advantage of the EPA’s funding decisions,” the EPA told the Center for Public Integrity in 2007. “Agency insiders,” however, told the center the real reason was to avoid congressional scrutiny.
That revelation is crucial, considering EPA withholds details about the special accounts, as well as sites endangering humans, from Congress. Not having such information effectively prevents Congress from exercising its constitutionally mandated oversight of executive branch agencies like EPA.
The EPA, for example, refused to divulge information about the sites exposing humans to dangerous contaminants to Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works democrats – including then-Sen. Barack Obama and Ranking Member Barbara Boxer of California, CPI reported. Some of the documents were eventually obtained, but were marked “privileged,” and could only be reviewed under EPA supervision.
Boxer’s spokeswoman did not respond to repeated DCNF requests for comment.
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