Redundant federal inspections of labs working with anthrax wasting tax dollars

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Multiple government agencies are inspecting the same lab sites that work with hazardous materials like anthrax, an unnecessary overlap that wastes the government money as it faces budget cuts brought about by sequestration, a federal watchdog warns.

While regular safety checks are encouraged on laboratories studying so-called select agents – usually materials like anthrax, the new report questions whether the Defense, Agriculture, Transportation, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services Departments all need to conduct their own inspections.

“Inspections are important for safety and compliance and can help improve laboratory procedures, infrastructure, and security,” said the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog agency.  “However, the value of inspections may be diminished when federal agencies are expending resources to conduct the same or similar work and burdening entities with overlapping or duplicative inspections.”

The GAO said it is difficult to quantify just how much money is being wasted because of the overlap, but said that each inspection costs roughly $15,000. 

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    “The approximate overall federal cost for fiscal year 2010 and 2011 inspections was over $2.1 million dollars,” the watchdog agency said. And there is evidence that the cost overlap is “significant,” investigators said.

    “Federal agencies do incur quantifiable costs, including salaries, travel, and training of inspectors, and must purchase inspection equipment and pay staff to engage in inspection activities as opposed to  research or other routine activities,” the report said.  “Given that inspections cost more for larger entities and overlap occurs more often for larger entities, the cost of overlap is greater than it would be if it were evenly distributed across entities of various sizes.”

    The report also noted it takes about 380 work hours to complete each inspection, a waste of investigators time if they are reviewing a facility already inspected by a sister agency.

    After the 2001 anthrax attacks, when deadly spores were sent through the mail to Capitol Hill and other high-profile D.C. targets, many government agencies have increased research on biological agents that could be used in bioterrorism attacks.  Meanwhile, the Transportation Department (DOT) has been placed in charge of transporting the dangerous substances between various federal sites.

    The watchdog office said “overlapping” inspections occur if a particular site is evaluated by multiple federal agencies within a two-year span.  And larger sites were more likely to draw frequent inspections.  Fifty-five sites received multiple visits, just 15 percent of all facilities registered with the government from 2009 to 2011.  But because inspectors were more likely to frequent the largest facilities, those 55 sites represent roughly a third of all laboratories that are working with the hazardous materials.

    The report noted that DOT is less likely to be redundant with its inspections since it is focused on a narrow specialty: transportation of the select agents.

    Some laboratories are even getting multiple visits from the same government department, the GAO said. Defense Department facilities undergo Biosurety Management Reviews.

    “According to Army lab officials, however, these inspections tend to be identical” to evaluations conducted by the agency’s Office of Inspector General, the GAO said.

    The agency recommended the government departments better coordinate, including considering joint inspections that would save taxpayers money.

    HHS, USDA, DHS and DOD all agreed that overlap could be reduced, and noted that there have already been 24 joint inspections as the agencies try to work together better.

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