IG: EPA isn’t checking if funding recipients are following civil rights policies

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Organizations that receive funding from the EPA are required to adhere to section Six of the Civil Rights Act, which bars racial discrimination. That goes for state and local governments, non-profits, academics and contractors. But agency staff don’t always check, according to an audit by the Office of Inspector General. With more, project manager in the OIG Gabby Fekete joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Fekete, good to have you on.

Gabby Fekete: Good to be here.

Tom Temin: So tell us precisely what you looked at, I guess EPA has a special unit whose job it is to check on grant and fund recipients and their compliance with Title Six. Tell us more.

Gabby Fekete: Well, that’s correct. So we looked into the office that’s called the External Civil Rights Compliance Office within EPA’s Office of General Counsel. So that’s the office that’s responsible for enforcing several civil rights laws, including Title Six of the Civil Rights Act. Title Six is going to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, which includes the basis of limited English proficiency. So in the course of our review, we did a couple of different things. We looked into how the recipients, including states and territories, were addressing some of the regulatory requirements that EPA imposes upon recipients. So that was one of our key findings. We did a lot of interviews with states, with the regional offices, and then with EPA headquarters as well.

Tom Temin
I guess in some sense the EPA requirement is pretty much a governmentwide requirement for people that get money from the government by whatever means.

Gabby Fekete: That is correct. Title Six of the Civil Rights Act does apply federal governmentwide, and then each of the federal agencies has their own governing regulations that’s set up how those agencies do Title Six within their own work.

Tom Temin: And just once again, which types of recipients did you concentrate on in this particular look?

Gabby Fekete: For our review, we were looking at states and territorial governments, but the recipients for the purposes of Title Six can be any state or any of its political subdivisions. So that includes municipalities, counties, cities, it can be public or private agencies, institutions or organizations. And like you mentioned at the beginning, this includes both the direct recipients of EPA funding or an entity that’s the ultimate user of the funds, such as a contractor of the recipient. So in our review, we did focus on the environmental agencies for all 50 states and three territories like Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, and Washington D.C.

Tom Temin: Well, in fact, is there any state at this point in 2021 that does not have very strong, not only policies, but mechanisms for anti discrimination. I’m thinking of, say a group that goes back at least 40 or 50 years like the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, they call it the MCAD. Don’t most of the states have pretty strong mechanisms anyhow?

Gabby Fekete: There were a handful of states that had all of the required foundational elements that we looked for on their website. I think it’s important to note that we were looking at the website for kind of two key reasons. One of the requirements is that they have a posted non discrimination notice. So that can be on the wall of an office. But that’s kind of a factor of Title Six coming from 1964. Not in today’s world where most folks go to the internet if they have a question. And secondly, if you don’t usually go to the internet with a question during COVID, folks would likely be directed to these agencies websites in the event that physical office locations are closed or phone lines are busy. So we wanted to make sure that the websites themselves held accurate and sufficient information for the public.

Tom Temin: And perhaps of more concern is the pass through effect, because often the money saved from the EPA might be redistributed as so many federal funds are in so many programs to other entities that actually carry out the work. So that means the money could possibly go to contractors or to grantees that maybe you’re not so good at anti discrimination or don’t have these kinds of policies and practices in place.

Gabby Fekete: That’s correct. So starting then at that state and territorial level, making sure that they have a really solid foundation that would indicate that then if they’ve got that they’re looking for that at that subcontractor level.

Tom Temin: And therefore what your recommendations were not to those entities but to the EPA’s own ECRCO office. So what were chief recommendations?

Gabby Fekete: That’s right. So all of our recommendations as the EPA OIG go to the EPA, and not to states or to any other entities. And our findings, recommendations build on the fact that I think ECRCO needs credit for all the work they did do. One of the complaints about the program historically was that they had a huge backlog of cases that have built up over the years. So since ECRCO assumed management of EPA’s Title Six programs, they resolved the backlog, about 61 cases, over the course of about two years. So our findings and recommendations build on that work that was done. So we looked at it, we said, okay, ECRCO you’ve done all of this, what can you do moving forward? So to us that looks like conducting more proactive compliance checks, collecting additional data, and overall implementing a more systematic compliance program. You probably noted that one of our recommendations went to the office of administrator. A message that we received during our interviews with states and regions was that they needed guidance on cumulative impacts and permitting. But that’s not something that ECRCO is going to cover alone. So those issues that underlie these complaints are often not just a water concern, or just an air concern, but they address these bigger, more interwoven issues. So that was the impetus behind directing that first recommendation to the office of the administrator who can gather together all the necessary offices.

Tom Temin: Some of the case studies in this report that you’ve put out are pretty interesting. I’m looking at one concerning Genesee County, Michigan that contains I guess, Flint, known as a vehicle city. And from 1992, it took till 2017 for EPA to issue the first and only finding of discrimination, 25 year drag on case.

Gabby Fekete: That’s correct. And that is a really interesting case study in terms of how complaints arise and what EPA is going to do about that. So in that case, the state of Michigan received EPA funding and was therefore subject to Title Six. But when the state held these hearings with respect to permitting that power station, EPA found that the state treated members of the public differently based on race. So EPA found that African American community members received less opportunity to speak, less opportunity to review documents than their white counterparts. and intimidation is another one of the elements in this Genesee power case because armed guards were used at specific hearings in specific locations — and intimidation and retaliation are prohibited in EPA’s non discrimination regulations.

Tom Temin: Alright, so the ECRCO got recommendations. The administrator is aware of all of this. What’s the reaction you’re getting from the agency?

Gabby Fekete: Well, as you’ll note, in our report, we did not receive a formal response from the agency on this report. So our next step is going to be obtaining a formal response on this final report. And those responses are important because they contain the corrective actions. And those are the steps that the agency plans to take to address our recommendations moving forward. Those include target completion dates for things and we track those to determine whether or not those dates are achieved. When we don’t receive responses or when corrective actions aren’t occurring. We include these things in our semi annual reports that go to Congress.

Tom Temin: So you can’t then surmise that silence is compliance and acceptance at this point?

Gabby Fekete: No, we had a lot of meetings with and discussions with ECRCO through the course of this report. And again, just to highlight that work, that was a 61 case backlog. That’s a huge thing to address in the time they did it. So it’s not for us to surmise whether or not the silence is agreement or disagreement at this point. And we’re looking forward to that formal response here in 60 days.

Tom Temin: Gabby Fekete is a project manager in the Office of Inspector General at the EPA. Thanks so much for joining me.

Gabby Fekete: Thank you for having me.

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