DoD IG team recognized for uncovering hazardous chemical exposure in military-owned housing

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There’s been a lot of attention paid to poor living conditions in privatized military housing over the last several years. But as the Pentagon’s inspector general documented in a sweeping report last year, the Defense Department’s own housing facilities have problems too. A team of 14 auditors, engineers and program analysts found systemic management weaknesses that exposed service members to lead, radon and other hazards in government-owned housing. For their work, the DoD IG team was just recognized with the annual Glenn/Roth Award for Exemplary Service by the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency. For more about the work that went into that specific project – and the OIG’s other ongoing work on military housing issues – Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to Jamessia Blunt, a program manager in the OIG’s infrastructure branch.

Interview transcript:

Jared Serbu: First of all, congratulations to you and your team for this recognition from CIGIE (Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency ). On this particular piece of work on the military housing issue, I think it was a combination of some legislative direction where you were told to look at the narrow issue of lead based paints in government controlled housing, but then the OIG on sort of a discretionary basis expanded the scope. And that eventually led you to a point where you were able to identify some systemic issues for Congress. So can you start by just taking us through that process, what that landscape looked like back in 2018, when you started this work, and how you made the decision to start eating this particular elephant in this particular way?

Jamessia Blunt: That is a good question. So I’ll start by saying we actually have a pretty long history of working in this area. We’ve been doing reports on military family housing since about 2014. Our report that we’ve done in the past kind of was part of the genesis for the congressional direction that we received in September 2018 when Congress asked us to evaluate whether service members and their families were exposed to lead hazards while living in military family housing, like you just discussed. After we got that initial direction we announced our project in November 2018. However, the Senate Armed Services and House Appropriations Committees, they continue to hold meetings on the subject. And those meetings included construction defects, mold, pest infestations and contamination from lead based paint, which affected health, safety and well being of service members in privatized military family housing. Although the statements from the committee hearings focused on privatized military family housing, the concerns raised at the hearings prompted the former DoD IG Mr. Glenn Fine to expand the scope of our government owned and government controlled military family housing evaluation to look at more than just lead based paint. For context, military family housing is divided into two pretty broad categories. The first is privatize. The second is government-owned, government-controlled. And our report that we’re discussing today, we evaluated the management of health and safety hazards in government-owned and government-controlled military friendly housing. We expanded the scope of the hazard from its initial lead based paint hazard focus, to include management of other health and safety hazards, which were asbestos containing material, radon, fire and electrical safety, drinking water quality, window fall prevention, mold, carbon monoxide and pest management. The objective of our evaluation was to determine whether the DoD effectively managed these hazards in government-owned and government-controlled military family housing.

Jared Serbu: Yeah, and the management questions that you get to really to me were the important ones when the report came out, because those hearings that you talked about back in 2018, my recollection of them were that there was a lot of commentary from military leadership that yes, we have dropped the ball here, but no real answers as to how things got this way, which this report starts to get to identifying like we said those systemic issues. Can you maybe recap for us just some of the, as we said, systemic issues that you did come away with in this report, because it’s it’s much more than just a cataloguing of this percentage of military housing has harmful substances in it.

Jamessia Blunt: You’re absolutely right. We didn’t just catalog specific X versus X list of issues. We did take a look more at the management of health and safety hazards and government owned and government controlled military family housing. I think it’s important to note that for this report, we define management as the policies and procedures used by the DoD and services to identify mitigate and minimize, monitor, disclose or oversee health and safety hazards in government-owned and government-controlled military family housing. And I know that’s a long list. But basically, we’re trying to figure out are they actually seeing the hazard? What are they doing to control it, which is that mitigate or minimize? And then once they’ve figured out their control method and they’re doing whatever they need to do, how are they monitoring disclosing information to the appropriate departments on the military installations and overseeing that hazard all the way through closure? So, when we went to those eight sites, we visually assess the selection of 187 government-owned and government-controlled military family housing units to determine if there were health and safety hazards that were not being managed or were being managed, conversely, and that government-owned, government-controlled military family housing. Additionally, when we did that scope change from lead based paint to the barrage of nine hazards. The team had an increase in criteria. Of course, we went from 12 policy documents that specifically talk about lead based paint, 12 policy documents and laws specifically talk about lead based paint to over 50. So during the evaluation, we reviewed federal laws and regulation, we review documentation from US Department of Housing and Urban Development, US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Fire Protection Association, numerous DoD directives, instructions, manuals and policy memorandums, country specific final governing standards, unified facility criteria and other military service orders, directed instructions and manuals along with individual Installation management plans. For the eight installations that we visited. We found systemic deficiencies for lead based paint, asbestos containing material and radon. We found instances where installation officials were not managing some of the issues, but they weren’t quite systemic. For instance, we found two installations where there are some fire safety hazards that were not being managed effectively. And then we found one installation, where the drinking water quality hazard was not necessarily being followed to the guidance that was received by the installation officials.

Jared Serbu: And the general response from the department and the military services, as I recall was basically yep you’re right and we will work on these deficiencies. Since 2018, and more of the points in 2020, when you issued the report, are you able to gauge how much progress they’ve actually made in addressing these, again, management and oversight deficiencies that you talked about?

Jamessia Blunt: That is another good question. So currently, we are in receive mode to get documentation from the military departments, and more specifically from the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense to close the recommendations from our report. We do know that the military departments have directed the services to do their part to fix the individual instances that we found within the report. And we’ve had some dialogue with them as they’re closing that out. However, we haven’t received any of the big ticket items, if you will, from our recommendations in the report, we’re still waiting, we still have some time based on when they projected they would be finished with those. But they were generally receptive to the recommendations that we made. They were cooperative in terms of they submitted memos that said that they agree with the recommendations, and they had a plan to get to an end state on them. So now we’re just waiting for them to send that documentation that says that they closed the recommendation.

Jared Serbu: Make sense. And as you kind of alluded to before, you may see that there’s two different kinds of housing at issue here. One is the government controlled housing, which was the subject of this report. But as you said, most of the attention has been on the privatized housing, which actually makes up the vast majority of military housing, especially in the continental United States. Can you broaden the scope out a little bit and just talk us through some of the OIGs ongoing oversight work on the topic of military housing in general, what sorts of things that you have done since 2020 and what you’re still working on?

Jamessia Blunt: Yes, I’m gonna back up a little bit, and then I’ll get to the 2020. It makes sense to mention the whole realm of knows everything that’s going on. So yes, in FY 18, we were requested to do the look into the lead based paint. And really, that was tasked to two organizations, GAO and the DoD OIG. After we deconflict a little bit, GAO went the path of looking to privatize housing, and they published a report March 26 2020 that talks about that. And then we published our report, April 30 2020, to talk about government-owned and government-controlled military family housing. In addition to that, as part of that FY 2018 requests, the DoD OIG office conducted an audit of all of the previous military housing recommendations that we’ve published over the years, which was published in a follow up audit report on June 9 2020. So the next step in the military housing arena, projects that we have came with FY 2020 NDAA. So the FY 2020 NDAA mandated three efforts to look into privatized military housing specifically. The first evaluation that we conducted was published on October 21 2021, entitled The Evaluation of the Department of Defense Implementation of Oversight Provisions of Privatized Military Housing. The second effort is titled evaluation of the department offense reform of privatized military housing oversight related to health, safety and environmental hazards. That evaluation was announced March 29 2021 and it’s still currently ongoing. The third evaluation is expected to start some time in the latter part of second quarter FY 2022. And that covers the three efforts that are tied to the FY 2020 NDAA mandate. Additionally, the FY 2021 NDAA mandated another effort. That effort is that the DoD OIG look into an audit of medical conditions related to privatize military housing. The DoD OIG has split that effort into two projects. One is an audit, one is an evaluation. The audit of medical conditions of residents in privatized military housing was announced April 1 2021, and it’s currently ongoing. And then the second part of that FY 2021 NDAA mandate will be covered in the year three of the FY 2020 NDAA mandate to kind of put a bow on that entire package of evaluations and audits.

Jared Serbu: Right. So across all of the projects that you’ve just talked about, I guess the last thing I’d wonder is, can you give us some sense for how receptive DoD and military components have been to your audit work and to your recommendations? I mean, my sense from the outside is there’s really no pushback against anything that you found, and that there is quite a bit of management attention on this. But it’s just such a huge problem with a lot of thorny issues tied up in it.

Jamessia Blunt: I think you are correct in your statement. The DoD officials that we’ve been involved with have been very receptive to giving us information when requested, meeting with us when requested. Sometimes they meet with multiple teams at one time because we just have so many evaluations and audits going on at the same time. And they’ve been receptive to the recommendations that we have been putting forth in our projects. And we just look forward to that being the tone as we continue doing the evaluation and audit work through the next year and a half to two years.

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Each week, Defense Reporter Jared Serbu speaks with the managers of the federal government's largest department. Subscribe on PodcastOne or Apple Podcasts.