On July 20, 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report on its audit of EPA’s implementation of the OIG recommendations for the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards (PGCCA) Program. The PGCCA Program is sponsored by the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention (OCSPP) to promote the environmental and economic benefits of developing and using green chemistry by recognizing industry innovations. In 2015, OIG reported that award results submitted to the EPA’s Pollution Prevention (P2) Program from PGCCA recipients were not adequately supported or transparent. In its audit, OIG found that EPA discontinued the use of unverified PGCCA results in EPA performance metrics, but “a lack of documented controls presents risk that these data may be used in the future.”
OIG states that it conducted the audit to accomplish two objectives:
- Identify the controls put in place by EPA for use during the fiscal year 2017 PGCCAs to prevent the use of unverified, self-reported results for agency reporting purposes; and
- Assess EPA’s actions to address recommendations in OIG Report No. 15-P-0279, EPA’s Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards Program Lacks Adequate Support and Transparency and Should Be Assessed for Continuation, issued September 2015.
OIG’s 2015 report contained nine recommendations. During this current audit, OIG verified that EPA completed the agreed-upon corrective actions for seven of the recommendations. OIG notes that it did not consider the remaining two recommendations in this audit. EPA completed one before OIG issued its 2015 report, and EPA and OIG later agreed that the other recommendation was not applicable.
By completing the outstanding recommendations, EPA discontinued the use of unverified PGCCA results in its P2 Program performance metrics, developed a program logic model that communicates how PGCCAs contribute to P2 Program goals, and established internal metrics that track Program outputs and provide future direction for the PGCCA Program. OIG found that EPA lacked documented internal controls to prevent the use of PGCCA results in agency performance metrics, however. According to OIG, without documented controls, there is a risk that unverified PGCCA results could be used as part of future EPA metrics (for example, if and when new staff become involved with the PGCCA Program). OIG states that it also found that OCSPP disagreed with it about the requirements regarding supporting documentation for completed corrective actions.
OIG recommends that the Assistant Administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention establish and document internal controls to prevent the use of PGCCA results in P2 Program performance metrics. EPA agreed with OIG’s recommendation and provided an “acceptable planned corrective action and completion date.”
History of Green Chemistry Program Metrics
To understand the context of the OIG recommendations, it is helpful to provide some background. Performance metrics are a significant challenge for the various programs within EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT). Output metrics are straightforward to measure (number of premanufacture notices processed, amount of pollution prevention grants awarded, and so forth); but outcome metrics are harder to quantify, especially for programs that “prevent” the occurrence of pollution. When performance metrics became de rigueur during the 2000s, OPPT reviewed its existing sources of data for outcome metrics that it could use to measure performance. One of the existing sources of quantitative data was the nominations for PGCCA Program. OPPT began by compiling the implemented prevention metrics from the award-winning technologies and reporting those as the benefits that resulted from the Green Chemistry Program. At the time, the Green Chemistry Program was one of the few programs that had any quantitative outcome metrics.
Recognizing that the non-winning technologies also had substantial prevention metrics, OPPT began systematically to review all the nominations and develop a database of all the benefits, including the types of benefit (e.g., water saved, reduced use of hazardous chemicals, waste prevented), industry sector (e.g., pharmaceutical, automotive, consumer cleaning), whether the benefits were implemented or potential, and any other quantitative amounts stated in the nominations. Unfortunately, the budget barely covered the data extraction, and no resources were available for or dedicated to verifying any of the results. Data verification would have required dedicated staff, additional contractor support, and approval for an Information Collection Request from the Office of Management and Budget. After a few years of extracting data, budget cuts to the Green Chemistry Program required that OPPT cease even extracting the data from non-winning nominations.
In evaluating OPPT’s implementation of the corrective actions from the 2015 OIG report, in its most recent audit, OIG found that the majority of the recommendations were implemented, but that OPPT lacked sufficient internal controls (and related documentation) to prevent the use of PGCCA metrics in its P2 Program metrics. It is not clear to us how formal a system is required to not aggregate the PGCCA metrics with other P2 Program metrics. Given the effort that is expended to properly aggregate the P2 Program metrics, there seems to be little risk that the PGCCA metrics will be inadvertently aggregated, even if there is significant staff and management turnover.
What the updated OIG report does not address is the regrettable continued apparent lack of support, financial and otherwise, for the PGCCA Program. For the first time since its inception, the PGCCAs did not receive any support from the White House after the transition to the Trump Administration. In each of the previous transitions between Administrations, one of the White House offices (e.g., OSTP, CEQ) provided permission to continue to designate the PGCCAs as the “Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge.” Without that approval, the 2017 Award was simply deemed the “Green Chemistry Challenge Award.”
In our view, the lack of clear support for the Green Chemistry Program, both from the White House and more generally within EPA and OCSPP, is most regrettable and more worrisome than whether unverified results accidentally get aggregated with other P2 metrics. The PGCCAs have provided many outstanding examples of how chemical products and processes can be designed to reduce the use or generation of hazardous substances. The technologies, whether they won the award or not, provide examples of how chemistry innovation can provide outstanding, market-based solutions to reduce risk to health and the environment by preventing problems rather than cleaning up them up. The PGCCAs have inspired students and companies alike to strive for a more sustainable future.
We urge OCSPP to recognize the value of the PGCCA Program and to provide the program with the necessary resources and institutional support to run the program, including properly documenting program outcomes. We also urge the Trump Administration to provide much needed support for the program, even if that support is limited to permitting EPA to continue to use “Presidential” in the title.