The EPA stashes billions in unaccountable slush funds

An investgigation by the Daily Caller New Foundation has revealed a stunning amount of cash squirreled away bu the Environmental Protection Agency and spent without congressional authorization.

More than $6 billion in settlements from parties found to have polluted Superfund toxic waste sites has been deposited in more than 1300 bank accounts since 1990. The EPA has spent about half that amount and no one knows on what.

“This is the very definition of an out-of-control agency, if they can raise their own money and not have to go to Congress to have it appropriated,” Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment told TheDCNF.

An EPA spokeswoman told TheDCNF the agency manages the accounts “in accordance with the law, congressional intent, and EPA policy and guidance.”

“In fact, EPA management of Superfund special accounts has been reviewed periodically,” she told TheDCNF. “EPA has responded to [Government Accountability Office], [inspector general (IG)], congressional, public and press inquiries regarding special accounts.”

But those reviews are neither regular nor recent

“EPA lacks transparency in its public reporting of special accounts,” the EPA’s IG wrote in 2009, the last year in which the accounts were reviewed by the independent watchdog. “Such transparency is needed to understand how special account funds are being utilized.”

Two years before the IG comment, the Center for Public Integrity reported reported that “there are hundreds of these accounts, and the EPA doesn’t need congressional approval to spend the money in them, unlike the Superfund trust fund.” The CPI has not returned to the special accounts in the years since.

“EPA generally does not report financial information on individual special accounts due to potential enforcement and/or procurement activities at individual sites,” an agency spokesman admitted, adding that “aggregate information on special accounts, beginning in [fiscal year] 2011, can be found … within the congressional justification document.”

That disclosure is limited in scope and is buried in the document.

Special accounts are necessary to ensure settlement money is only spent on the site a funding party polluted, Mark Schneider, a partner with Perkins Coie who has practiced environmental law for 25 years, told TheDCNF. He also noted that an interested party would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request for additional details. 

Congress has annually appropriated an estimated $1 billion for Superfund activities in recent years. The special accounts also annually accumulate millions of dollars from interest.

The EPA says it is spending the money to clean up Superfund sites that were specifically part of the settlement. But since there is no regular review or audit of the funds, we only have their word for it.

Even if everything is on the up and up, how can they spend a penny unless congress authorizes it? It turns out, these slush funds are kept all over the executive branch agencies. The Pentagon, HHS, HUD all have funds they can tap - usually for specific purposes but given the lack of transparency, the public can't be sure.

The amount the EPA has put away over the years is startling. It highlights how billions and billions of dollars are manipulated by federal agencies to keep the public in the dark about their activities.