Auditors cite TN environmental agency’s data management issues

Published: Dec. 18, 2018 at 6:36 AM EST
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An audit of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation found data management was such a mess that auditors were unable to determine whether the department was adequately addressing safety concerns.

The department’s Bureau of Environment is the state’s primary environmental regulatory agency. The audit by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury found the bureau’s five divisions store information in any of 161 different places, including paper files.

“Without more centralized control over data, the bureau cannot effectively manage its environmental programs,” the audit states.

The department concurred with the finding, stating that it is already working with a vendor to improve one aspect of data management. But it also noted creating a better computer system “will require significant financial resources and time.”

The problems affected how the department deals with complaints about things like illegal dumping. The audit found three of the five divisions had no formal process for investigating complaints. And the divisions couldn’t track complaints to determine public health risks or look for trends.

Auditors looked specifically at the Division of Water Resources’ computer system, which was the model for three other divisions. They found incorrect dates and missing information that made the reliability of the data questionable.

And retrieving specific data for the audit could be difficult to impossible. For instance, auditors wrote, “We were unable to obtain a report containing a list of legal orders that were issued to individuals who had violated the state’s water laws.”

Regarding water permit applications, auditors found “staff identified at least seven data repositories used to store water permit applications, and staff may use additional repositories not identified to us during our review. As a result, we had no assurance that we could obtain complete, reliable information necessary for our audit objectives.”

Tennessee Clean Water Network executive director Kathy Hawes said in an email that the nonprofit has been tracking the department’s enforcement of water quality regulations for more than a decade with no noticeable improvement.

“TDEC’s mission statement includes not only the goal of protecting “Tennessee’s air, land, and water,” but improving them as well. Neither is accomplished when a good regulatory system goes unenforced,” Hawes wrote.

Another area of concern in the audit was how the Division of Solid Waste Management deals with repeat violations by contractors who remove lead-based paint. The audit found that staff would send multiple notices of violation without ever taking more serious action like suspending or revoking a license or issuing a fine. Auditors found that of 66 uncorrected violations between July 2015 and April 2018, only one received a penalty.

Department spokesman Eric Ward said in an email, “TDEC views the audit as a great opportunity to improve our processes and better serve Tennesseans.”