Accreditation of an Environmental Forensic Center

The goal of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) enforcement program is to protect the public and the environment by identifying and requiring the correction of violations of environmental law. The National Enforcement

Investigations Center (NEIC), a division of EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training (OCEFT), provides scientific and technical support for the agency's enforcement efforts. Located in Denver, Colo., NEIC supports environmental enforcement through field activities and engineering evaluations, forensic laboratory activities, information management, technical analysis and training, and witness testimony.1

The NEIC mission includes support for both EPA's civil and criminal enforcement programs of EPA, as well as federal, state, tribal and local law enforcement. NEIC supports criminal investigations of alleged violations of environmental laws and regulations, e.g., illegal air pollution emissions, water discharges and disposal of toxic and hazardous pollutants. In one recently concluded criminal enforcement case in which the defendant pled guilty, NEIC's forensic work showed that a company's water pollution discharge caused a fish kill 40 miles downstream from the plant.

In the civil program, NEIC also supports national enforcement priorities and initiatives. For example, NEIC supports compliance monitoring investigations in various industrial sectors (refineries, iron and steel and chemicals), investigations of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act and efforts to identify responsible parties for that administers the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund. NEIC also provides vital technical support to settlement agreement negotiations with industries.

Support for both programs can include reviewing or evaluating complex industrial processes and waste treatment units, conducting field sampling and measurements, providing laboratory fraud investigation support, conducting laboratory measurements and providing testimony during legal actions.


Accreditation provides a sense of assurance to those external to a measurement facility that the facility is following a recognized and systematic approach to planning, conducting, documenting and assessing forensic environmental data collection activities.

NEIC uses a variety of scientific techniques to address technical issues encountered in supporting environmental enforcement. Sometimes the technical demands of a specific environmental investigation go beyond standard methods or established technologies. For example, NEIC conducts applied research to explore new methods and techniques or to apply existing techniques to new areas of environmental measurement and forensics.

In 2001, NEIC was accredited by the National Forensic Science

Technology Center (NFSTC), a nationally recognized accreditation body.2,3 This pioneering accreditation was the result of an intensive process in which NEIC and NSFTC cooperatively developed a rigorous standard for collecting and analyzing forensic evidence in environmental enforcement cases. The accreditation recognizes NEIC as a forensic center that follows a recognized and systematic approach in field and laboratory environmental measurement and sampling, laboratory analysis, evidence management, facility security and expert testimony.

Why did NEIC seek accreditation? Accreditation is not required for forensic laboratories, nor does it indicate infallibility. Accreditation is only as good as its implementation, and NEIC still must promote and defend the quality of individual work products associated with environmental enforcement actions. NEIC decided to seek accreditation because of its commitment to "sound science."

Accreditation provides a structure for the examination of scientific practices and procedures. This examination by staff and scientists can provide an opportunity for answering the question of why a certain action is performed, while requiring an understanding of the scientific principles involved in that action. Accreditation provides a sense of assurance to those external to a measurement facility, that is, people looking in from the outside, that the facility is following a recognized and systematic approach to planning, conducting, documenting and assessing forensic environmental data collection activities.

Employees understand that an accredited quality management system with formal policies, procedures and plans in place provides the basis for identifying and resolving any issues associated with conducting environmental measurement activities. An accredited quality management system helps advance one of the goals of the organization: generating a quality work product that can withstand legal and scientific scrutiny.

Accreditation also provides a sense of assurance to EPA stakeholders, e.g., the regulated community, the private bar, the law enforcement community and the general public that NEIC is following a recognized and systematic approach to conducting forensic environmental data collection activities that generate reliable and defensible data consistent with its scientific/technical role and responsibilities.

The Accreditation Standard

The first step towards accreditation was to choose an appropriate organization as the accreditation body. NEIC needed an accreditation body that would provide an environmental focus and a forensic focus, a laboratory component and a field component and an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) foundation with technique-driven, not method-driven, flexibility.

The NFSTC agreed to customize an accreditation standard for NEIC. NFSTC offered an approach to cover laboratory and field activities with a focus on the overlying forensic areas (evidence management, facility security and testimony evaluation). These systems would be examined through third-party independent audits in order to provide an external check on NEIC operations. This approach accredits the entire NEIC Quality System, not just an individual analyst or method.

The accreditation standard designed for NEIC is based on ISO/IEC Guide 25 (the international guide for the competence of testing laboratories) and ANSI/ASQC E4-1994 (the national standard adopted by EPA for quality management of environmental data collection).4,5 It also references specific aspects of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB) Manual.6 This manual is nationally recognized by laboratories involved in forensics activities in the United States.

Management Information Systems

An appropriate accreditation standard for NEIC demands internal structures to promote and protect scientific quality while supporting forensic areas. Management information systems must be in place to promote and protect the work of the analyst or field engineer who may be testifying in an enforcement action. The following are examples of essential management information systems:

  • Document Control;
  • Training;
  • Evidence Management;
  • Facility Security;
  • Verification of Professional Credentials; and
  • Testimony Evaluation.

Document Control

NEIC defines controlled documents as the written elements of the NEIC Quality System that are central to conducting forensic environmental measurement activities. At NEIC, an electronic document control system facilitates the control of the development and distribution of quality system documentation. More than 100 policies, procedures, plans and guidance documents are accessible through this system.


Proper control and handling of evidence is crucial to law enforcement.

NEIC employees can access the latest version of controlled documents in a read-only format from their computers. This system has eliminated the need for paper copy document distribution throughout the center. If desired, users can print out a hard copy of any document. Employees are notified when new documents have been developed or when existing documents have been revised. This approach enables NEIC to have a system for identifying the current version of a document, for delivering that current version to the desktop computer of an employee, for preventing unauthorized changes to the official version and for precluding the unintended use of obsolete documents.

Training

NEIC samplers or analysts are trained to conduct sampling or testing. The training applies to all NEIC employees and stresses the enhancement of employee knowledge, skills and abilities for job performance. Employees and management identify training needs that mutually benefit the employee and the Center.

Evidence Management / Facility Security

Proper control and handling of evidence is crucial to law enforcement. The NEIC Evidence Management system provides details on how evidence should be secured, transported, stored and transferred. Evidentiary materials are not limited to environmental media or hazardous substances; other types of evidence, such as computerized information and documents, can also require chain-of-custody security.

The NEIC Facility Security System addresses security for evidence and employees. It focuses on issues directly related to the maintenance of secure offices and measurement areas. Security of the perimeter, the building and limited access areas have been defined. Access to potential evidence is restricted to the project leader and designated project team members.

Verification of Professional Credentials /Testimony Evaluation

Prospective NEIC employees have their professional credentials checked before they are hired, but additional assurances of the accuracy of credentials must be made for any employee who may represent EPA in a legal action. The U.S. EPA Credentials Certification Policy requires verification of the credentials of "all persons who may testify on behalf of EPA."7

The NEIC tracking system for verification of professional credentials prior to testimony was developed to provide an up-to-date summary of personnel for whom academic and professional credentials have been verified. Prior to representing EPA or the U.S. Department of Justice in any legal action, the NEIC employee develops a personal qualifications statement (PQS) summarizing education, subsequent training and work history. The PQS is verified by legal counsel, the personnel office and the employee's supervisor.

After an NEIC employee has given testimony in a deposition, hearing or trial, a questionnaire is sent to a monitor, oftentimes a case attorney who was present for the legal action. This questionnaire, part of the Testimony Evaluation System, asks the monitor about the employee's performance during direct testimony and cross-examination, as well as the effectiveness of any presentations given by the employee. The information provided can be used to develop an action plan to improve the employee's effectiveness as a witness, if necessary.

Conclusion

These systems for implementing the NEIC Accreditation Standard are crucial for generating work products that can withstand legal and scientific scrutiny. Accreditation is not a substitute for "sound science," but it does provide a structure for continually assessing our operations and functioning systems to assure that we continue to generate "sound science," as we fulfill our mission to protect the public and the environment.

References

1 US Environmental Protection Agency National Enforcement

Investigations Center (NEIC) Home Page, (February 2002).

2 The mention of any organization, including but not limited to the

National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) does not constitute

an endorsement by EPA.

3 National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) Home Page,

(November 26, 2001).

4 ISO/IEC GUIDE 25: General requirements for the competence of

calibration and testing laboratories, 3rd ed., International

Organization for Standardization and International Electrochemical

Commission, Geneva Switzerland, 1990.

5 American National Standard ANSI/ASQC E4-1994: Specifications and

Guidelines for Quality Systems for Environmental Data Collection and

Environmental Technology Programs, American Society for Quality Control,

Energy and Environmental Quality Division, Environmental Issues Group,

Milwaukee, Wisconsin,1995.

6 Laboratory Accreditation Board Manual, American Society of Crime

Laboratory Directors, Garner, North Carolina, 1994.

7 Credentials Certification Policy, U.S. Environmental Protection

Agency, Office of Enforcement, Washington, D.C., 1991.




This article originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 14, No. 2, p. 66.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2003 issue of Environmental Protection.

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