Inspector General's Top Pesticide Evaluator ‘Not There to Make Them Happy'

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It wasn't hostile, but the reception Jeff Harris received at a recent meeting of state pesticide regulators wasn't exactly warm either.

Harris is the head of the division that evaluates the performance of pesticide programs within the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of the Inspector General. Less than a month before the June 2 meeting, Harris' team released a report detailing what it described as the EPA's inappropriately lax oversight of states' pesticide inspections.

It was the second report the IG's office issued in a matter of months that criticized the EPA for ceding to states too much of its pesticide enforcement duty.

Although the state pesticide regulators objected to the language used in the reports, Harris stood by his team's findings and ultimately engaged in a healthy back-and-forth discussion at the meeting.

Harris' work evaluating the effectiveness of the EPA's regulation of pesticides is continuing full steam. He sat down with David Schultz of Bloomberg BNA in his Washington office to discuss his team's recent work, the reaction it's been garnering and his overall philosophy on conducting oversight.

This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Bloomberg BNA:

It seems like you guys are doing a lot more work on pesticides. Is that accurate or a misperception?

Jeff Harris:

It’s half and half. We have done pesticide work in the past. It just so happens that we were reorganized about two or two and a half years ago. We now have a group dedicated to the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention.

So we are focused on that indefinitely, to continually be doing some work on pesticides, toxics and pollution prevention. Before, it was episodic. Now it will be continual.

Bloomberg BNA:

Based on your work over the past two to three years, how do you feel the EPA’s regulation of pesticides is functioning?

Harris:

That’s beyond the scope of what I can answer because what we’re doing is looking at individual activities or programs. From decades of experience, I can say that it’s rare that we walk into a program and don’t find ways that we think it can be improved.

We get feedback occasionally, “How come we don’t say anything positive?” 

Maintaining Relationships

Bloomberg BNA:

By my understanding, the inspector general doesn’t have the authority to force the agency to make any changes to the way it operates. You can only make recommendations. Is that right?

Harris:

We make recommendations, and they either accept or reject those. If they don’t agree, then we can ratchet up the negotiations up the chain of command. So it goes from the teams, to the management up to the deputy administrator.

If nothing gets resolved and there is no agreement between OIG and the agency, it simply gets reported to Congress, and it’s up to Congress whether they want to choose to follow up.

Bloomberg BNA:

I imagine that’s very rare and something you want to avoid.

Harris:

It uses resources, and it would have to be very contentious for us to go in that direction.

Usually, you’re dealing with an agreed-upon set of facts, and usually the disagreement is about what to do about those facts. It can be a difference of opinion or priority when you’re in an era of diminishing resources about what your priorities should be.

Bloomberg BNA:

So your office has an incentive to maintain a good relationship with the people who run the programs you’re evaluating, because you want to be able to convince them, “Hey, we’re on your side. We’re trying to help you. We’re making these suggestions. You should adopt these suggestions.” How does your office maintain the relationships with the agency?

Harris:

It’s really about communication, to be transparent about what our objective is, what information we’re collecting, what we’re doing with that information to reach conclusions, and give them an opportunity to weigh in. If there are disagreements, we can work that out.

But, essentially, we’re not there to make them happy. We’re there to be constructive. And constructive is sometimes subjective, but we’re trying to be evidence-based, fact-based and have a logical construct behind what we say. 

New Administrators

Bloomberg BNA:

How has your job and the work of your office changed under the current administrator, Gina McCarthy, versus her predecessor, Lisa Jackson?

Harris:

I can just speak for my area of responsibility. I can say there’s no change whatsoever. The types of things that we’re looking at—[the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act] doesn’t change, [the Toxic Substances Control Act] doesn’t change.

You might have a different emphasis. If the administrator says, “One of my priorities is environmental justice, and I’m going to put resources into that issue,” then we might say, “Well, we’re going to look at how environmental justice affects our area.”

Bloomberg BNA:

So it would be looking at FIFRA through the lens of environmental justice?

Harris:

Correct. For example, right now the president just announced an initiative on pollinators.

We might follow that direction in terms of, how well is that change working? But there might be a lag time between what they do and what we do to follow up. 

‘Cool Reception?'

Bloomberg BNA:

I wanted to talk about the recent meeting of state pesticide regulators. Were you surprised that you got what seemed to be a cool reception there?

Harris:

[laughs] Was it a cool reception?

Bloomberg BNA:

Well, you tell me. You were not exactly greeted as a returning hero at that meeting.

Harris:

Actually, I thought it went well. The reason I say that is that, first of all, we were invited. So the ultimate test of any product is that someone pays attention and, hopefully, someone acts in a constructive way.

Bloomberg BNA:

They certainly paid attention.

Harris:

I think that’s positive. In the end, it’s not what we say. It’s going to be what the states and the [EPA's regional offices] do. 

Ongoing Work on GMOs

Bloomberg BNA:

I was surprised by your recent launch of a new investigation into how the EPA is handling insect resistance to genetically modified Bt corn.

Harris:

This is actually a new area for us to get engaged in, genetically modified material. We also are aware that [the Government Accountability Office] is active in that area; they have an ongoing job.

Bloomberg BNA:

Are they looking at the regulation of all GMO products or just this one type of corn?

Harris:

I could not answer that question. I mean, I could, but I can’t. [laughs] I do know that ours is not duplicative or an overlap of their agenda. And I’ll leave it at that.

(The GAO confirmed to Bloomberg BNA that it has launched an investigation into federal regulation of genetically modified crops and said the results of its investigation will be released next summer.)

Future Work

Bloomberg BNA:

What do you see as the future of your office? What are the things you’d like to be doing five years from now?

Harris:

I don’t think our mission has really changed since our office was created. It’s the “So what?” question. What is the effect of EPA programs? And I think that becomes more acute over time as EPA’s resources are diminishing. I don’t see any change in that trend line.

It’s more important than ever to make sure every dollar and every resource is dedicated to environmental improvement, is actually successful and achieves its goal. So I think what we’re doing is more important.

Bloomberg BNA:

What do you see as the future of your office? What are the things you’d like to be doing five years from now?

Jeff Harris:

I don’t think our mission has really changed since our office was created. It’s the “So what?” question. What is the effect of EPA programs? And I think that becomes more acute over time as EPA’s resources are diminishing. I don’t see any change in that trendline.

It’s more important than ever to make sure every dollar and every resource is dedicated to environmental improvement is actually successful and achieves its goal. So I think what we’re doing is more important.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com