Farm Programs: USDA Should Take Additional Steps to Ensure Compliance with Wetland Conservation Provisions

What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has taken steps to increase the consistency of their determinations about where wetlands exist on farmers’ lands. For example, NRCS state offices formed teams to make such determinations in the prairie pothole region (see fig.), which covers parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These offices also standardized their wetland determination procedures and included more details, such as the types of data that can be used to identify wetland boundaries. Under wetland conservation provisions in federal law, to receive the benefits of certain USDA farm programs, farmers must not convert wetlands to cropland.

Wetlands and Cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region

NRCS’s primary method to ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions is conducting annual compliance checks of selected tracts of land for farmers in USDA programs. To select tracts, NRCS draws a national random sample. The sample is to include about 1 percent of tracts subject to wetland the provisions nationally, so many tracts are not sampled for years. For 2014 through 2018, NRCS identified fewer than five farmers with wetland conservation violations per year on the approximately 417,000 tracts in North Dakota and South Dakota—the states with the most wetland acres. Agency officials said NRCS has limited resources to conduct more checks. However, some USDA agencies emphasize risk-based criteria, rather than a random sample, in selecting tracts to check for compliance with other provisions. Doing so makes the checks more efficient by targeting the tracts most likely to have violations. If NRCS used a risk-based approach for its compliance checks (e.g., using information on acres cultivated annually on tracts), it could more efficiently ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions.

If NRCS finds violations, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) may withhold program benefits from farmers, or it may grant waivers to farmers who acted in good faith, without intent to commit violations. FSA granted 243 of 301 requests for good-faith waivers from 2010 to 2018, according to FSA data. FSA relies on committees of fellow farmers to decide on waivers by considering factors such as prior violations. GAO found that some committees relied on weak justification to grant waivers even if farmers had prior violations and that FSA had not specified what is adequate justification. By specifying what constitutes adequate justification, FSA could better ensure it provides benefits only to eligible farmers.

Why GAO Did This Study

Wetlands perform vital ecological functions, and draining them can harm water quality and wildlife habitat. Many wetlands were drained for farming before enactment of wetland conservation provisions in 1985. However, millions of acres of wetlands, known as potholes, remain in the prairie pothole region.

NRCS determines where wetlands exist on the land of farmers who participate in USDA farm programs, and it identifies violations of wetland provisions. FSA administers farm program benefits. In 2017, USDA’s Office of Inspector General reported that NRCS had implemented wetland determination procedures in the prairie pothole region inconsistently.

GAO was asked to review USDA’s implementation of wetland conservation provisions in the prairie pothole region. This report examines, among other objectives, the steps NRCS has taken to increase the consistency of wetland determinations and the approaches NRCS and FSA use to ensure compliance with the provisions. GAO reviewed agency manuals, data, and files on wetland determinations and waivers, and interviewed agency officials and stakeholder groups.

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    During fiscal years 2018 and 2019, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) obligated about $421 million through two grant programs to state and local governments to help identify and control lead paint hazards in housing for low-income households. HUD also issued guidelines for evaluating and controlling lead paint hazards, generally encouraging abatement (such as replacing building components containing lead) as the preferred long-term solution. HUD has supported research on lead paint hazard control and provided education and outreach to public housing agencies, property owners, and the public through publications and training events. HUD monitors lead paint-related risks in its Project-Based Rental Assistance Program, one of HUD's three largest rental assistance programs, through management reviews and periodic physical inspections, but has not conducted a comprehensive risk assessment to identify properties posing the greatest risk to children under the age of 6. HUD's management reviews include assessing property owners' compliance with lead paint regulations—such as by reviewing lead disclosure forms, records of lead inspections, and plans to address lead paint hazards. Inspectors from HUD's Real Estate Assessment Center also assess the physical condition of properties, including identifying damaged paint that could indicate lead paint risks. According to HUD officials, they have not conducted risk assessments in project-based rental assistance housing because they believe the program has relatively few older and potentially riskier properties. However, GAO's analysis of HUD data found that 21 percent of project-based rental assistance properties have at least one building constructed before 1978 (when lead paint was banned in homes) and house over 138,000 children under the age of 6. If HUD used available program data to inform periodic risk assessments, HUD could identify which of the properties pose the greatest risk of exposure to lead paint hazards for children under the age of 6. Unless HUD develops a strategy for managing the risks associated with lead paint and lead paint hazards in project-based rental assistance housing, it may miss the opportunity to prevent children under the age of 6 from being inadvertently exposed to lead paint in those properties. Project-Based Rental Assistance Properties with at Least One Building Built before 1978 and That House Children under Age 6, as of December 31, 2019 Note: Children under the age of 6 are at the greatest risk of lead exposure because they have frequent hand-to-mouth contact, often crawl on the floor, and ingest nonfood items. Lead paint exposure in children under the age of 6 can cause brain damage, slowed development, and learning and behavioral problems. Exposure to lead paint hazards can cause serious harm to children under 6 years old. HUD is required by law to reduce the risk of lead paint hazards in HUD-assisted rental housing—including project-based rental assistance (subsidies to make privately owned multifamily properties affordable to low-income households). The 2019 Consolidated Appropriations Act Joint Explanatory Statement includes a provision for GAO to review, among other things, HUD's oversight of lead paint and related hazards in affordable rental housing. This report (1) describes how HUD programs and guidance address lead paint hazards in HUD-assisted and other low-income rental housing, and (2) examines HUD's oversight procedures for assessing risk for lead paint hazards in project-based rental assistance housing. GAO reviewed HUD and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lead paint regulations and documents on lead programs and methods for addressing lead paint hazards. GAO reviewed HUD oversight policies and procedures and analyzed HUD data on building and tenant age. GAO interviewed staff at HUD, EPA, and organizations that advocate for safe affordable housing. GAO recommends that HUD (1) conduct periodic risk assessments for the Project-Based Rental Assistance Program and (2) develop and implement plans to proactively manage identified lead paint risks. HUD agreed to conduct periodic risk assessments and develop and implement a plan to proactively manage risks. For more information, contact John H. Pendleton at (202) 512-8678 or pendletonj@gao.gov.
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    In Human Health, Resources and Services
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  • Federal Contractor Agrees to Pay $18.98 Million for Alleged False Claims Act Caused by Overcharges and Unqualified Labor
    In Crime News
    Cognosante LLC has agreed to pay the United States $18,987,789 to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by using unqualified labor and overcharging the United States for services provided to government agencies under two General Services Administration (GSA) contracts, the Justice Department announced today.  Cognosante, which is headquartered in Falls Church, Virginia, provides health care and IT services and solutions to federal agencies.   
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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  • Information Security and Privacy: HUD Needs a Major Effort to Protect Data Shared with External Entities
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is not effectively protecting sensitive information exchanged with external entities. Of four leading practices for such oversight, HUD did not address one practice and only minimally addressed the other three in its security and privacy policies and procedures (see table). For example, HUD minimally addressed the first leading practice because its policy required federal agencies and contractors with which it exchanges information to implement risk-based security controls; however, the department did not, among other things, establish a process or mechanism to ensure all external entities complied with security and privacy requirements when processing, storing, or sharing information outside of HUD systems. HUD's weaknesses in the four practices were due largely to a lack of priority given to updating its policies. Until HUD implements the leading practices, it is unlikely that the department will be able to mitigate risks to its programs and program participants. Extent to Which the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Policies and Procedures Address Leading Practices for Overseeing the Protection of Sensitive Information Practice Rating Require risk-based security and privacy controls ◔ Independently assess implementation of controls ◌ Identify and track corrective actions needed ◔ Monitor progress implementing controls ◔ Legend: ◔=Minimally addressed—leading practice was addressed to a limited extent; ◌=Not addressed—leading practice was not addressed. Source: GAO analysis of HUD data. | GAO-20-431 HUD was not fully able to identify external entities that process, store, or share sensitive information with its systems used to support housing, community investment, or mortgage loan programs. HUD's data were incomplete and did not provide reliable information about external entities with access to sensitive information from these systems. For example, GAO identified additional external entities in system documentation beyond what HUD reported for 23 of 32 systems. HUD was further limited in its ability to protect sensitive information because it did not track the types of personally identifiable information or other sensitive information shared with external entities that required protection. This occurred, in part, because the department did not have a comprehensive inventory of systems, to include information on external entities. Its policies and procedures also focused primarily on security and privacy for internal systems and lacked specificity about how to ensure that all types of external entities protected information collected, processed, or shared with the department. Until HUD develops sufficient, reliable information about external entities with which program information is shared and the extent to which each entity has access to personally identifiable information and other sensitive information, the department will be limited in its ability to safeguard information about its housing, community investment, and mortgage loan programs. To administer housing, community investment, and mortgage loan programs, HUD collects a vast amount of sensitive personal information and shares it with external entities, including federal agencies, contractors, and state, local, and tribal organizations. In 2016, HUD reported two incidents that compromised sensitive information. House Report 115-237, referenced by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, included a provision for GAO to evaluate HUD's information security framework for protecting information within these programs. The objectives were to (1) assess the effectiveness of HUD's policies and procedures for overseeing the security and privacy of sensitive information exchanged with external entities; and (2) determine the extent to which HUD was able to identify external entities that process, store, and share sensitive information with applicable systems. GAO compared HUD's policies and practices for systems' security and privacy to four leading practices identified in federal legislation and guidance. GAO also assessed HUD's practices for identifying external entities with access to sensitive information. GAO is making five recommendations to HUD to fully implement the four leading practices and fully identify the extent to which sensitive information is shared with external entities. HUD did not agree or disagree with the recommendations, but described actions intended to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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  • New Jersey Man Pleads Guilty to Violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
    In Crime News
    A New Jersey man who controlled two U.S.-based companies pleaded guilty today for paying a total of $100,000 in bribes to a Korean government official in order to obtain and retain contracts with the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), a state-owned and state-controlled agency within the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of National Defense.
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  • Information Security: IRS Has Improved Controls but Needs to Resolve Weaknesses
    In U.S GAO News
    No summary available.
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  • Final Defendant Sentenced in $80 Million Health Care Fraud Conspiracy
    In Crime News
    A Florida man was sentenced today to 210 months in prison for conspiracy to commit health care fraud and wire fraud.
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  • Genetic Services: Information on Genetic Counselor and Medical Geneticist Workforces
    In U.S GAO News
    Genetic counselors and medical geneticists are two groups who typically work together to provide genetic services, such as genetic testing and counseling. Genetic counselors have at least a master's degree in genetic counseling and assess individuals or families with or at risk for genetic conditions, and provide counseling and education on test results. Medical geneticists are typically physicians who specialize in medical genetics and genomics, and provide comprehensive genetic services, ranging from diagnosis and interpretation of test results to the management and treatment of genetic conditions. GAO's analysis of data from the professional organizations representing this workforce shows the number of genetic counselors certified to provide genetic counseling services has nearly doubled since 2009, and is projected to continue growing. The data show there were approximately 4,700 certified genetics counselors in the United States in 2019. The data also show the number of new medical geneticists has increased modestly since 2009, and the total number certified in the United States was approximately 1,240 as of April 2020. There is no widely accepted measure for how many genetic counselors and medical geneticists should be available; however, representatives from professional organizations GAO interviewed stated that demand for genetic services is rising. Data from the professional organizations representing the genetic counselor and medical geneticist workforces, as well as data from the Census Bureau, also show the number of genetic counselors and medical geneticists varied across states. States averaged seven genetic counselors per 500,000 people in 2019 and two medical geneticists per 500,000 people in 2020. Genetic counselors and medical geneticists primarily practice in hospital settings. Distribution of Genetic Counselors by State, 2019 Advances in genetic technology and research have increased the amount of information available to individuals and providers, and may have increased the demand for genetic services. The medical genetics workforce—which includes genetic counselors and medical geneticists—plays an essential role in providing access to genetic services. Some studies have identified concerns with the size of the medical genetics workforce and its ability to meet the current and future demand for genetic services. A House Committee on Appropriations report included a provision for GAO to conduct an analysis of the medical genetics workforce. This report describes, among other objectives, what is known about changes in the size of the genetic counselor and medical geneticist workforces; and what is known about the geographic distribution of these workforces. GAO reviewed relevant studies of the genetic counselor and medical geneticist workforces; interviewed agency officials and professional organizations representing each workforce; and analyzed the most recent available data on the size and distribution of each workforce in the United States, as well as population data from the Census Bureau. GAO provided a draft of this report to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor. The Department of Health and Human Services provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact James Cosgrove at (202) 512-7114 or CosgroveJ@gao.gov.
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  • Southern Colorado Man Sentenced to More Than 19 Years for Plotting to Blow Up Synagogue
    In Crime News
    A Colorado man was sentenced today in federal court in Colorado for plotting to blow up a synagogue.
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