Capitol Hill Anthrax Incident:

EPA's Cleanup Was Successful; Opportunities Exist to Enhance Contract Oversight

GAO-03-686: Published: Jun 4, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2003.

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In September and October 2001, the first cases of anthrax bioterrorism occurred in the United States when letters containing anthrax were mailed to congressional leaders and members of the news media. As the cleanup of the Capitol Hill anthrax site progressed, EPA's estimates of the cleanup costs steadily rose. GAO was asked to describe (1) the costs EPA incurred to conduct the cleanup and how it was funded, (2) the extent to which EPA awarded the cleanup contracts competitively, (3) EPA's oversight of the contractors' work and any suggested changes to EPA's contracting practices, and (4) the extent to which EPA agreed to indemnify contractors against liability for potential damages related to the cleanup.

EPA spent about $27 million on the Capitol Hill anthrax cleanup, using funds from its Superfund program. From the outset, many uncertainties were associated with the cleanup effort, including how to remove anthrax from buildings. EPA revised its November 2001 estimate of $5 million several times during the cleanup as the nature and extent of the contamination became fully known and the solutions to remove and properly dispose of the anthrax were agreed upon and carried out. To conduct the cleanup, EPA relied extensively on the existing competitively awarded Superfund contracts it routinely uses to address threats posed by the release of hazardous substances. Specifically, about 80 percent of the contract costs were incurred under 10 of EPA's existing Superfund contracts. EPA dedicated significant resources to overseeing the many contractors working on the Capitol Hill anthrax cleanup--including about 50 staff from nine regional offices experienced in leading and overseeing emergency environmental cleanups. Most often, these staff ensured that the contractors were on site and performing assigned tasks efficiently. EPA also assigned an administrative specialist to ensure that contract charges were accurate and reasonable. EPA's assessment of its emergency responses to the anthrax incidents, which focused on or included the Capitol Hill site, concluded that, overall, the agency had used its contracts effectively but that it could improve some areas of its contracting support. In addition, GAO's review of the Capitol Hill cleanup revealed inconsistencies in EPA's cost oversight practices among regions. For example, EPA uses a computerized system for tracking contractor costs for hazardous substance removal contracts, but regions use the system inconsistently for the technical assessment contracts also used during emergency responses. Consistent use of the system would likely improve the quality of EPA's nationwide contract data and enhance EPA's oversight capabilities. EPA agreed to indemnify two contractors with key roles in the fumigation of the Hart Senate Office Building with chlorine dioxide gas against liability that could have resulted if a third party had been injured by the contractors' release of a harmful substance, including anthrax.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enhance its ability to ensure that the agency is providing effective and efficient contractor oversight, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to require the regions to track and monitor both technical and removal contract cost data in the agency's computerized cost-tracking system.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has implemented our recommendation that EPA regions track and monitor both technical and removal contract cost data in the agency's cost-tracking system. (At the time of our review, this system was only used for removal contracts.) Specifically, beginning in 2005 and continuing as the staggered, multi-year contracts awarded by EPA regions expired and new contracts awarded, EPA is requiring that technical contracts--referred to as Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team (START) contracts--require the use of the agency's cost tracking system with some limited exceptions for responses of short duration. Importantly, the cost tracking system is used for both contract types for larger cleanups as well as regionally or nationally significant emergency response actions.

    Recommendation: To enhance its ability to ensure that the agency is providing effective and efficient contractor oversight, the Administrator of EPA should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Respnse to require the on site staff who are responsible for reviewing contractor cleanup costs to certify that they have done so before the costs are approved for payment.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, EPA now requires that the on-scene coordinators review and approve contract costs for both technical and removal contracts. This stems from EPA's use of the same cost-tracking system for these contracts, as we had recommended. Adding this requirement for the technical contracts is responsive to our recommendation that these contract costs be reviewed by on-site staff before payments are approved.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Administrator should direct the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response to examine whether more or all of the regions should hire specialists--either EPA or contractor staff--to support the on-scene coordinators by providing timely, detailed reviews of contract costs. If EPA uses contractor staff for this purpose, the agency will need to provide appropriate contract oversight and ensure that potential conflicts of interest are identified and mitigated.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, EPA has taken steps to provide support to Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response on-scene coordinators by providing timely, detailed reviews of contract costs. Under the framework of the Response Support Corps initiated in 2003 following our report, approximately 1,100 EPA managers and staff nationwide have volunteered to fill key leadership and staff positions for incident responses. According to EPA, many Response Support Corps staff have the skills for reviewing contractor costs, and EPA has provided additional opportunities to provide training to personnel that could support field cost accounting activities. For example, in July 2007, a field cost accounting training session was provided to over 21 participants from EPA headquarters and most of the regional offices.

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