Fast Facts

The Environmental Protection Agency provides grants to Indian tribes to help protect health and the environment. EPA awarded over $985 million directly to tribes for FY 2014-2019 through 43 grant programs.

Tribes use the grants to help prevent air and water pollution, to educate the community about the dangers of radon, and more. More tribes are applying for a stagnant or declining pool of funds—leaving each tribe with less.

But multiple grant awards may be combined into a Performance Partnership Grant, which offers tribes greater flexibility to address funding gaps. Our 5 recommendations to EPA include updating guidance on this flexibility.

Funding for these grant programs has stagnated or declined.

Graph showing the amount of grant dollars per fiscal year for several EPA grant programs.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded over $985 million to Indian tribes through 43 different grant programs from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, according to agency data from EPA's Integrated Grants Management System. For example, EPA awarded grants for the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program—which assists tribes in developing their environmental programs—and for programs to prevent air and water pollution directly to tribes.

Tribes used EPA grants to support a variety of activities. For example, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado told GAO it has used EPA grant funding to monitor methane emissions and help reduce this greenhouse gas. The equipment on the tribe's vehicle, shown below, identifies methane leaks from broken pipes. The Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico uses an EPA grant to educate its community and others across the country about the dangers of radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause cancer—and how to mitigate exposure. Jicarilla Apache officials told GAO that radon exposure is a priority for the tribe because of above-average cancer rates.

Mobile Methane Detection Equipment Funded by an Environmental Protection Agency Grant to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe

Mobile Methane Detection Equipment Funded by an Environmental Protection Agency Grant to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe

EPA and tribal officials whom GAO interviewed identified financial, staffing, and communication challenges to addressing tribal environmental concerns through EPA grants. The most common challenge identified by EPA and tribes was stagnating or declining amounts directed by congressional committees or allocated by EPA for certain grants. EPA has taken some actions to address this challenge, such as by promoting the use of Performance Partnership Grants (PPG). These allow tribes to combine grant awards, thus providing greater flexibility to address financial gaps. However, EPA best practices guidance on PPGs is limited and outdated. EPA staff in some regions restricted the movement of funds between grants in a PPG, although the regulation allows for such movement. EPA officials said they are studying the use of PPGs but did not have plans to update the agency's best practices guidance. Updating this guidance could help ensure EPA staff more consistently allow the movement of funds between grants in a PPG, thereby increasing funding flexibilities for tribes to address their environmental concerns.

Why GAO Did This Study

Hundreds of tribal environmental programs operate across the nation to protect human health and safeguard the environment. Many of these programs are supported, at least in part, by EPA grants. Some tribes have raised concerns that a lack of resources threatens their ability to operate tribal environmental programs.

GAO was asked to review EPA grants to tribes. This report examines (1) the amount and types of grants EPA awarded to tribes for fiscal years 2014 through 2019; (2) how tribes used these grants; and (3) challenges EPA and tribes identified in addressing environmental concerns through grants, and EPA's actions to address these challenges. GAO reviewed laws, policies, and grant documentation; assessed EPA data on the types and amount of grants provided to tribes; and interviewed EPA officials as well as 10 tribes and one intertribal consortium selected to highlight different EPA regions and grant types, for nongeneralizable information about EPA grants and related challenges.

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Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations to EPA, including that EPA update guidance on PPGs. EPA agreed with three recommendations and disagreed with two, noting that it believes it has already taken actions that address these recommendations. GAO continues to believe the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Environmental Protection Agency 1. The Associate Administrator of EPA's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations should update Performance Partnership Grant (PPG) best practices guidance for tribes to clarify, for EPA and tribal staff, how PPGs operate, including that tribes may use PPG funds for any activity that is eligible under any grant eligible for inclusion in PPGs. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In its October 2020 agency letter, EPA stated that it disagrees with this recommendation because the information the recommendation calls for is published in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relation's National Program Guidance document. We continue to believe that the PPG best practices guidance document should be updated, because EPA and tribal officials told us that they consult the best practices guidance, not the OCIR guidance, to determine activity eligibility and develop PPG applications.
Environmental Protection Agency 2. The Associate Administrator of EPA's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations should update the list of grants eligible for inclusion in a Performance Partnership Grant so that all grants the office has determined eligible, including those identified under current or any revised regulation as eligible, are listed and ensure the list is publicly available on the EPA website. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In its October 2020 agency letter, EPA disagreed with this recommendation, stating that their list is up to date. We continue to believe that there are missing grant programs, such as those we highlighted in our report. EPA officials did say that they plan to update a related regulation. If that action takes place and the list is then updated, we will review the actions at that time to determine if they are responsive to the recommendation.
Environmental Protection Agency 3. The Director of EPA's Office of Grants and Debarment, working with each region's grant management office, should develop and nationally distribute onboarding materials for grant specialists and project officers new to working with Indian tribes that includes guidance specific to working with tribes and tribal grants. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In its October 2020 agency letter, EPA stated that as the National Program Manager for Grants, the Office of Grants and Debarment (OGD) will work with the EPA grants community (regional grants management officers, program managers, and the Office of Indian and Tribal Affairs) to conduct a needs assessment for grants specialists and project officers new to working with tribal grants and will supplement existing onboarding tools/training materials for use nationally by June 2021. At that time, we will review the materials to determine if they are responsive to the recommendation.
Environmental Protection Agency 4. The Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of International and Tribal Affairs, working with national program offices that oversee grants to tribes, should develop and nationally distribute onboarding materials for grants management, such as initial checklists, grant application guidance, or other materials related to specific environmental media (e.g., air, water, hazardous waste) to assist new tribal staff in applying for grants and conducting grant work. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In its October 2020 agency letter, EPA stated that it plans to build upon its existing grant information activities to include a grant competition/general grant webinar for a tribal audience. According to EPA, existing materials will be adapted to the tribal audience as necessary by June 2021. OITA plans to make available, using exiting materials adapted as necessary for a tribal audience, general onboarding materials for tribal grants management by December 2021. EPA also stated that this material may be used voluntarily by tribes to develop specific onboarding information for their staff. In December 2021, we will review the materials to determine if they are responsive to the recommendation.
Environmental Protection Agency 5. The Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, the Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Water, and the Director of EPA's American Indian Environmental Office should update and nationally distribute guidance for project officers and tribes that clarifies documentation requirements and eligibility definitions for quality assurance project plans and the Indian Environmental General Assistance Program. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In Its October 2020 agency letter, EPA stated its plan to continue its current Quality Assurance Project Plan (QAPP) review process led by the EPA Regions who are responsible for QAPP implementation. EPA expects to complete this in September 2021. EPA plans to use the results of the QAPP review to update documentation requirements and eligibility definitions as necessary for data activities identified in tribal work plans by December 2021. EPA then plans to nationally distribute this information to EPA project officers and tribes by March 2022. At this time, we will review the documentation to determine if it is responsive to the recommendation. For the General Assistance Program, EPA stated that it will better clarify documentation requirements and eligible definitions by June 2021. EPA then plans to nationally distribute this information to EPA project officers and tribes by September 2021. At this time, we will review the documentation to determine if it is responsive to the recommendation.

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