Environmental Protection Agency:

Actions Needed to Improve Planning, Coordination, and Leadership of EPA Laboratories

GAO-12-236T: Published: Nov 17, 2011. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2011.

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David C. Trimble
(202) 512-9338


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

This testimony discusses the research and development activities of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the findings of our recent report on the agency's laboratory enterprise. EPA was established in 1970 to consolidate a variety of federal research, monitoring, standard-setting, and enforcement activities into one agency for ensuring the joint protection of environmental quality and human health. Scientific research, knowledge, and technical information are fundamental to EPA's mission and inform its standard-setting, regulatory, compliance, and enforcement functions. The agency's scientific performance is particularly important as complex environmental issues emerge and evolve, and controversy continues to surround many of the agency's areas of responsibility. Unlike other primarily science-focused federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, EPA's scientific research, technical support, and analytical services underpin the policies and regulations the agency implements. Therefore, the agency operates its own laboratory enterprise. This enterprise is made up of 37 laboratories that are housed in about 170 buildings and facilities located in 30 cities across the nation. Specifically, EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) operates 18 laboratories with primary responsibility for research and development. Four of EPA's five national program offices operate nine laboratories with primary responsibility for supporting regulatory implementation, compliance, enforcement, and emergency response. Each of EPA's 10 regional offices operates a laboratory with responsibilities for a variety of applied sciences; analytical services; technical support to federal, state, and local laboratories; monitoring; compliance and enforcement; and emergency response. Over the past 20 years, independent evaluations by the National Research Council and others have addressed planning, coordination, or leadership issues associated with EPA's science activities. The scope of these evaluations varied, but collectively they recognized the need for EPA to improve long-term planning, priority setting, and coordination of laboratory activities; establish leadership for agencywide scientific oversight and decision making; and better manage the laboratories' workforce and infrastructure. When it was established in 1970, EPA inherited 42 laboratories from programs in various federal departments. According to EPA's historian, EPA closed or consolidated some laboratories it inherited and created additional laboratories to support its mission. Nevertheless, EPA's historian reported that the location of most of EPA's present laboratories is largely the same as the location of its original laboratories in part because of political objections to closing facilities and conflicting organizational philosophies, such as operating centralized laboratories for efficiency versus operating decentralized laboratories for flexibility and responsiveness. Other federal agencies face similar challenges with excess and underused property. Because of these challenges, GAO has designated federal real property as an area of high risk. This statement summarizes the findings of our report issued in July of this year that examines the extent to which EPA (1) has addressed the findings of independent evaluations performed by the National Research Council and others regarding long-term planning, coordination, and leadership issues; (2) uses an agencywide, coordinated approach for managing its laboratory physical infrastructure; and (3) uses a comprehensive planning process to manage its laboratory workforce.

EPA has taken some actions but has not fully addressed the findings and recommendations of five independent evaluations over the past 20 years regarding long-standing planning, coordination, and leadership issues that hamper the quality, effectiveness, and efficiency of its science activities, including its laboratory operations. First, EPA has yet to fully address planning and coordination issues identified by a 1992 independent, expert panel evaluation that recommended that EPA develop and implement an overarching issue-based planning process that integrates and coordinates scientific efforts throughout the agency, including the important work of its 37 laboratories. Second, EPA has also not fully addressed recommendations from a 1994 independent evaluation by the MITRE Corporation to consolidate and realign its laboratory facilities and workforce--even though this evaluation found that the geographic separation of laboratories hampered their efficiency and technical operations and that consolidation and realignment could improve planning and coordination issues that have hampered its science and technical community for decades. Third, EPA has not fully addressed recommendations from the independent evaluations regarding leadership of its research and laboratory operations. On the basis of our analysis of EPA's facility master planning process, we found that EPA manages its laboratory facilities on a site-by-site basis and does not evaluate each site in the context of all the agency's real property holdings--as recommended by the National Research Council report in 2004. EPA's facility master plans are intended to be the basis for justifying its building and facilities spending, which was $29.9 million in fiscal year 2010, and allocating those funds to specific repair and improvement projects. Master plans should contain, among other things, information on mission capabilities, use of space, and condition of individual laboratory sites. In addition, we found that most facility master plans were out of date. EPA's real property asset management plan states that facility master plans are supposed to be updated every 5 years to reflect changes in facility condition and mission, but we found that 11 of 20 master plans were out of date and 2 of 20 had not been created yet. EPA does not use a comprehensive planning process for managing its laboratories' workforce. For example, we found that not all of the regional and program offices with laboratories prepared workforce plans as part of an agencywide planning effort in 2007, and for those that did, most did not specifically address their laboratories' workforce. In fact, some regional management and human resource officials we spoke with were unaware of the requirement to submit workforce plans to the Office of Human Resources. Some of these managers told us the program and regional workforce plans were a paperwork exercise, irrelevant to the way the workforce is actually managed. Managers in program and regional offices said that workforce planning for their respective laboratories is fundamentally driven by the annual budgets of program and regional offices and ceilings for full-time equivalents (FTE).

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