Burnout, expertise gaps plague EPA chemicals office

Key EPA programs are facing a steep staffing shortage that some employees worry will imperil critical chemicals work and certain Biden administration priorities, even as advocates say the agency has no real plan for fixing the problem.

Parts of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention lack badly needed personnel, according to agency staff, posing issues for programs focused on new and existing chemicals. EPA is aware of the problem and has noted the need to attract and retain staff within those programs. But critics say that despite the acknowledgement, EPA is doing very little to improve gaps or morale.

“It’s been bad for a really long time,” said Kyla Bennett, who directs science policy for the nonprofit watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, about staffing. “I don’t think the public fully understands just how bad. I think they’d be stunned if they knew.”

EPA’s chemicals office is tasked with some of the most pressing work facing the Biden administration, including chemical risk assessments and research on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Michal Freedhoff, EPA’s chemicals chief, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee in October that her office was struggling, citing “a staff under stress” operating with “less than 50 percent” of the resources needed to do their jobs (E&E Daily, Oct. 28).

PEER believes the extent of the issue is far greater and questions whether EPA has a real plan to fix the problem. The group filed a public records request asking for documents detailing how the agency is acting to counter scientific staffing hurdles. But EPA turned over only a workforce analysis from 2015 to 2020.

That document, shared with and first reported by E&E News, shows that attrition rates in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics hovered just under 9 percent last year. That office is housed within OCSPP and oversees key risk assessment work for both new and existing chemicals, among other duties.

EPA did not clarify if the attrition rate is still the same for the office, and it is unclear how OPPT might match up to similar parts of the agency. According to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, overall staff losses at EPA between 2016 and 2020 were at 7.4 percent, the greatest loss of personnel across government agencies surveyed.

An overall lack of staff isn’t the only problem facing the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics — expertise in specific areas is also an issue. PEER noted cancer experts and inhalation specialists as examples of knowledge the agency currently needs. Without that insight, the group cautioned, some of the agency’s most important public health work could be compromised.

Low morale
Staffing issues and low morale have been documented issues within the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics . A leaked 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey for the office showed workers were unhappy with many elements of their jobs, to a disproportionate extent relative to other parts of the agency.

For example, across EPA, approximately 20 percent of staff felt they could not “disclose a suspected violation of any law, rule or regulation without fear of reprisal.” But for OPPT, that number was 43 percent. It was even higher within that office’s Risk Assessment Division, with 56.1 percent feeling negatively about the issue.

Read more: Burnout, expertise gaps plague EPA chemicals office