Department of Energy: Environmental Liability Continues to Grow, but Opportunities May Exist to Reduce Costs and Risks

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) environmental liability is large and growing. In managing cleanup responsibilities related to this liability, DOE faces challenges in contract and project management, and has opportunities to reduce costs and risks. 

Why GAO Did This Study

DOE is tasked with cleaning up hazardous and radioactive waste created by nuclear weapons research and production sites across the country dating back to World War II and the Cold War. DOE’s cleanup mission includes addressing contaminated soil and groundwater, deactivating and decommissioning contaminated facilities, and building facilities to treat millions of gallons of radioactive waste. DOE’s estimate of the probable costs for this future cleanup is known as its environmental and disposal liability (or environmental liability).

This report describes the status of DOE’s environmental liability, and challenges and opportunities GAO has identified that DOE faces in managing its cleanup responsibilities. GAO reviewed its prior reports and synthesized key findings and recommendations related to DOE’s environmental liability.

For more information, contact Nathan Anderson at (202) 512-3841 or andersonn@gao.gov.

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Effective coordination and communication among federal agencies, commercial partners, jurisdictions, and providers is critical to successfully deploying COVID-19 vaccines and managing public expectations, especially because the initial supply of vaccine has been limited. Status of Development of Six Operation Warp Speed COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates, as of January 8, 2021 Medical Supply Chain The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in the nation’s medical supply chain, which includes personal protective equipment and other supplies necessary to treat individuals with COVID-19. The Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is an important piece of HHS’s recently developed strategy to improve the medical supply chain to enhance pandemic response capabilities. However, the department has yet to develop a process for engaging about the strategy with key nonfederal stakeholders that have a shared role for providing supplies during a pandemic, such as state and territorial governments and the private sector. GAO’s work has noted the importance of directly and continuously involving key stakeholders, including Congress, in the development of successful agency reforms and helping to harness ideas, expertise, and resources. To improve the nation’s response and preparedness for pandemics, GAO recommends that HHS establish a process for regularly engaging with Congress and nonfederal stakeholders—including state, local, tribal, and territorial governments and private industry—as the agency refines and implements its supply chain strategy for pandemic preparedness, to include the role of the SNS. HHS generally concurred with this recommendation and noted that the department regularly engages with Congress and nonfederal stakeholders. GAO maintains that capitalizing on existing relationships to engage these critical stakeholders as HHS refines and implements a supply chain strategy, to include the role of the SNS, will improve a whole-of-government response to, and preparedness for, pandemics. In August 2020, the President issued an Executive Order directing agencies to take steps toward the goal of strengthening domestic drug manufacturing and supply chains. Federal agencies have started implementing the Executive Order, but expressed concerns about their ability to implement some of the provisions. In particular, GAO found that federal agencies do not have complete and accessible information to identify supply chain vulnerabilities and to report the manufacturing supply chains of drugs that were procured by the agency. To help it identify and mitigate vulnerabilities in the U.S. drug supply chain, GAO recommends that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensure drug manufacturing data obtained are complete and accessible, including by working with manufacturers and other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and, if necessary, seek authority to obtain complete and accessible information. HHS neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. COVID-19 Data for Health Care Indicators The federal government does not have a process to help systematically define and ensure the collection of standardized data across the relevant federal agencies and related stakeholders to help respond to COVID-19, communicate the status of the pandemic with citizens, or prepare for future pandemics. As a result, COVID-19 information that is collected and reported by states and other entities to the federal government is often incomplete and inconsistent. The lack of complete and consistent data limits HHS’s and others’ ability to monitor trends in the burden of the pandemic across states and regions, make informed comparisons between such areas, and assess the impact of public health actions to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Further, incomplete and inconsistent data have limited HHS’s and others’ ability to prioritize the allocation of health resources in specific geographic areas or among certain populations most affected by the pandemic. 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Specifically, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adapted its enforcement methods for COVID-19 to help protect agency employees from the virus and address resource constraints, such as by permitting remote inspections in place of on-site inspections of workplaces. However, gaps in OSHA’s oversight and tracking of its adapted enforcement methods prevent the agency from assessing the effectiveness of its enforcement methods during the pandemic, ensuring that its adapted enforcement methods do not miss violations, and ensuring that employers are addressing certain identified violations. To improve its oversight, GAO recommends that OSHA (1) develop a plan, with time frames, to implement the agency’s oversight processes for COVID-19-adapted enforcement methods, and (2) ensure that its data system includes comprehensive information on use of these enforcement methods to inform these processes. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with these recommendations. Additionally, OSHA’s data do not include comprehensive information on workplace exposure to COVID-19. For example, OSHA does not receive employer reports of all work-related hospitalizations related to COVID-19, as disease symptoms do not appear within the required reporting time frames. Employers may also face challenges determining whether COVID-19 hospitalizations or fatalities are work-related because of COVID-19’s incubation period and the difficulties in tracking the source of exposure. GAO recommends that OSHA determine what additional datamay be neededfrom employers or other sources to better target the agency’s COVID-19 enforcement efforts. The agency neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. Assistance for Fishery Participants The CARES Act appropriated $300 million in March 2020 to the Department of Commerce (Commerce) to assist eligible tribal, subsistence, commercial, and charter fishery participants affected by COVID-19, which may include direct relief payments. After administrative fees were assessed, $298 million of the $300 million appropriated was obligated for fishery participants.Widespread restaurant closures in the spring of 2020 led to a decrease in demand for seafood, adversely affecting the fisheries industry. As of December 4, 2020, all funds had been obligated and only about 18 percent ($53.9 million) of the CARES Act funding obligated for fishery participants had been disbursed, which is inconsistent with Office of Management and Budget guidance on the importance of agencies distributing CARES Act funds in an expedient manner. Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials said they expect that the vast majority of funds will be disbursed to fisheries participants by early 2021. However, the agency does not have the needed information centralized to help ensure that funds are being disbursed expeditiously and efficiently. GAO recommends that NOAA develop a mechanism to track the progress of states, tribes, and territories in meeting established timelines to disburse funds in an expedited and efficient manner. NOAA concurred with this recommendation. Program Integrity GAO continues to identify areas to improve program integrity and reduce the risk of improper payments for programs funded by the COVID-19 relief laws now that federal agencies have obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the $2.7 trillion appropriated for response and recovery efforts as of November 30, 2020. Federal relief programs remain vulnerable to significant risk of fraudulent activities because of the need to quickly provide funds and other assistance to those affected by COVID-19 and its economic effects. In this report, GAO identifies concerns about overpayments and potential fraud in the unemployment insurance (UI) system, specifically in the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which provides UI benefits to individuals not otherwise eligible for these benefits, such as self-employed and certain gig economy workers. As of January 11, 2021, states that had submitted data to DOL reported more than $1.1 billion in PUA overpayments from March through December 2020. While DOL requires states to report data on PUA overpayments, as of the beginning of 2021, the agency was not tracking the amount of overpayments recovered, limiting insight into the effectiveness of states’ efforts to recoup federal funds. To better track the recovery of federal funds, GAO recommends that DOL collect data from states on the amount of PUA overpayments recovered. DOL concurred with this recommendation, and has taken the first step toward implementing it by issuing new guidance and updated instructions for states to report PUA overpayment recovery data. GAO also remains concerned about SBA’s management of internal controls and fraud risks in the Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program. COVID-19 relief laws made qualifying small businesses and nonprofit organizations adversely affected by COVID-19 eligible for financial assistance from the EIDL program. Some approval requirements were also relaxed, such as requiring each applicant to demonstrate that it could not obtain credit elsewhere, through December 31, 2021. As of December 31, 2020, SBA officials said they had approved about 3.7 million applications for loans related to COVID-19, totaling about $200 billion. SBA rapidly processed loans and advances to millions of small businesses affected by COVID-19. GAO’s analysis of SBA data shows that the agency approved EIDL loans and advances for potentially ineligible businesses. For example, SBA approved at least 3,000 loans totaling about $156 million to potentially ineligible businesses in industries that SBA policies state were ineligible for the EIDL program, such as insurance and real estate development, as of September 30, 2020. GAO recommends that SBA develop and implement portfolio-level data analytics across EIDL loans and advances made in response to COVID-19 as a means to detect potentially ineligible and fraudulent applications. SBA neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation. As of January 15, 2021, the U.S. had about 23 million cumulative reported cases of COVID-19 and more than 387,000 reported deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country also continues to experience serious economic repercussions. Four relief laws, including the CARES Act, were enacted as of November 2020 to provide appropriations to address the public health and economic threats posed by COVID-19. As of November 30, 2020, of the $2.7 trillion appropriated by these four laws, the federal government had obligated a total of $1.9 trillion and expended $1.7 trillion of the COVID-19 relief funds, as reported by federal agencies. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, provided additional federal assistance for the ongoing response and recovery. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing monitoring and oversight efforts related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This report examines the federal government’s continued efforts to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. GAO reviewed data, documents, and guidance from federal agencies about their activities and interviewed federal and state officials and stakeholders. GAO completed its audit work on January 15, 2021. GAO is making 13 new recommendations for agencies that are detailed in this Highlights and in the report. For more information, contact A. Nicole Clowers at (202) 512-7114 or clowersa@gao.gov.
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