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Fraud, misconduct at EPA-used water quality analysis labs has 'put all of us at risk'

Kate Raiford
Published: Tuesday October 10, 2006

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Increasing fraud and other misconduct at Environmental Protection Agency water quality analysis labs has put all of us at risk for contaminants and disease outbreaks, RAW STORY has learned. However, since the scope and risk cannot be measured, EPA is downplaying the findings.

A Sept. 21 report issued by the EPA Office of Inspector General (OIG) found hundreds of weaknesses—missing data, no log books, falsified measurements—not noted by EPA. The office had found many of the same problems in 1999, and they were identified again by EPA in 2002. EPA did nothing, the report said.

Drinking water and wastewater fraud investigations comprise more than half of all OIG investigations.

“Fraud in even just one lab can have a significant impact on several thousands, millions of people,” said a spokesman for the EPA OIG. “We think this is an area vulnerable and susceptible to fraud.”

In a response to the report, EPA said in a statement that “[g]iven that the report includes recommendations that would require significant investments on the part of EPA and states, it is also critical to demonstrate more specific evidence of the problem.”

Speaking to RAW STORY, an analytical chemist and former lab inspector described some of the types of fraud and questionable lab practices he’s observed.

For example, states routinely send out test samples that must be analyzed by all labs. The test samples are all the same, and labs will call each other to check answers. “What then followed were phone calls between the labs trying to find out what the results were that other people had gotten, like high school kids with a take home test,” the chemist said in an e-mail.

“Now this alone isn’t out-and-out fraud, because the labs still presumably analyze the samples,” he wrote, “but if someone is expecting the answer to be seven, they’re going to keep testing the sample trying to get seven to turn in for certification, even if seven isn’t really the right answer.”

Two other types of fraud are called “time travel” and “mountain ranging,” and both involve manipulating equipment to make it look like the experimental protocol was followed or the correct result was produced. EPA OIG found evidence of both, according to its report, along with “suspicious condition[s] or practice[s],” such as altered signatures on reports, no maintenance records on instruments, and numerous quality control failures.

The scope of the problem is hard to measure. Lab inspectors in some regions do not look for fraud. EPA OIG has not done national or statewide checks on lab misconduct to measure the extent of fraud or the likelihood of danger to people, the report said.

In Arizona, where state inspectors use a more advanced analysis than EPA requires, inspectors have found more cases of fraud than any other state. About one in seven labs there had fraudulent or severely inappropriate lab procedures.

One consequence of fraud might be outbreaks of waterborne diseases. No cases have been tied to fraud, but this is because outbreaks are never traced all the way back to lab procedures and notes, the report said. However, his is the reason given by EPA in the report for its reluctance to follow all of OIG’s 10-point recommendation plan—that because fraud has never been tied to any cases of disease, it doesn’t justify all the protective measures.

EPA Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water declined to comment and cited the report for its statement. “[W]e are concerned that the report does not adequately distinguish between possibilities and likelihoods and, in not doing so, may present an unnecessarily alarming picture to the American public,” Benjamin H. Grumbles said in the report. He is the assistant administrator to the Office of Water.

So how prevalent is fraud? The lab inspector RAW STORY spoke with said fraud is seldom looked for because it is perceived as rare.

“Of course that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you don’t look, you never find,” he said. “I think some of the sense of frustration that comes out in the [O]IG report regarding EPA’s relative inaction compared to what the [O]IG recommends has basis here. It’s a cultural mindset that makes it not a priority.”

“The fact that it may also be expensive and difficult to root out doesn’t encourage EPA management to follow up on it either, given the many issues EPA has to address, why take on a hard problem that’s costly to address and whose scope, as the [O]IG noted, isn’t fully known.”

But fraud is preventable and detectable. A good lab inspector will interview lab employees while they are working, look at data, inspect instruments and observe how the lab is operating, said Wisconsin State Certification Officer and audit chemist Alfredo Sotomayor. He served on the EPA OIG’s expert panel to review the drinking water analysis process.

Sotomayor added that inappropriate lab procedures are often the product of rushed work, pressure to cut costs, lack of oversight and inefficiently trained employees, saying, “The amount of money for analysis is decreasing. [There’s an] increasing pressure to cut costs.”

EPA has until Dec. 21 to respond to the report with a plan of action.