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R.E.A.P. program draws criticism for not meeting goals, wasting money

Department of Environmental Protection staff and volunteers remove tires from the Tug Fork River last fall. (Photo courtesy of the DEP)

CHARLESTON — What started as a three-year junked car removal program run by A. James Manchin in the early 1970s is now a multi-million-dollar litter control program.

But the Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan is in need of a clean-up of its own, according to a new report.

The Performance Evaluation and Research Division of the Legislative Auditor’s Office released a performance review Thursday of the A. James Manchin Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan, also known as R.E.A.P.

The audit criticized R.E.A.P. for not attempting to meet legislative benchmarks, for being ineffective at preventing pollution and for questionable expenditures with grants. This included a $1 million grant to a non-profit incorporated by the West Virginia AFL-CIO that has yet to file how they used the grant.

GRAND R.E.A.P.ER

In an undated photo, A. James Manchin is filmed among a group of scrapped automobiles from the R.E.A.P. program. (Photo courtesy of the WVU West Virginia and Regional History Center)

The program, originally called the West Virginia Junked Car Retrieval Program, started in 1973 with a $750,000 federal grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to remove rusted cars from around the state.

Manchin, who later became secretary of state and a state treasurer, became the program’s first director after an appointment by the late Gov. Arch Moore.

While it is unknown who gave the program its new name and colorful acronym of R.E.A.P., according to Greg Icenhower, author of “A. James Manchin, A Biography of Controversy,” the acronym was based on remarks from Manchin himself.

“(Manchin) told his secretary that people had ‘…far too long sewn the hillsides and the creek beds of Mother West Virginia with jezebels and jungles of junkery. That which a man sows, he shall also reap,’ Manchin declared,” Isenhower wrote.

By October 1975, Manchin’s R.E.A.P. claimed to have removed 100,000 junked cars from the state, parading the record-setting car that was painted blue and gold on a truck all around Charleston to celebrate. As he traveled around the state, he named R.E.A.P. supporters Manchin Minutemen and R.E.A.P. regiment majors. Manchin himself became known as the Grand R.E.A.P.er.

The offices of the Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston’s Kanawha City. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

It was his personality and antics with R.E.A.P. that launched him into his first statewide office.

R.E.A.P. WHAT YOU SOW

By 2005, the program was officially renamed the A. James Manchin Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan after the man who made it his mission to rid the hills of junk. R.E.A.P. became a catch-all within the DEP for litter control, open dump elimination, land reclamation, waste tire cleanup and recycling grant programs.

When the Legislature created a new expanded R.E.A.P., the goal was to reduce the amount of per capita municipal solid waste in landfills by 50 percent of 1991 levels. Data compiled by legislative auditors found R.E.A.P. was not meeting these benchmarks and municipal solid waste had increased between 2010 and 2018.

When legislative auditors asked the DEP to provide this information, they said they could not verify compliance with the legislative mandate and didn’t believe the information could be compiled, despite auditors being able to collect the information.

“While the state’s efforts to promote recycling and composting are paying off with a per capita reduction in those materials being landfilled, it is not clear that per capita solid waste figures have declined,” wrote DEP General Counsel Jason Wandling in the agency response to auditors. “The data necessary to determine the amount of solid waste generated by West Virginia residents and disposed of is not readily available as some quantity of solid waste is hauled out of state for disposal and there is not a reporting mechanism.”

DEP officials also told legislative auditors that the Legislature’s goal of reducing municipal solid waste was “unrealistic and unattainable from the inception.”

“The Legislative Auditor asserts that when an agency is statutorily mandated to achieve a goal, it should not ignore it because it contends that the goal is unattainable,” the auditors said in response. “Instead, the agency should express its opinion directly to the Legislature and possibly offer an alternative.”

Auditors found that R.E.A.P. was having success at shutting down illegal dumping sites in West Virginia, but the agency was largely shutting down the same sites every year instead of showing a reduction in the number of dumping sites. The number of dumps eradicated in 2013 was 1,443, while the number of dumps eradicated in 2017 was 1,419.

“…If R.E.A.P. is being effective in encouraging proper waste disposal, then a downward trend would be expected in the number of illegal dumps eradicated and the tons of illegally disposed waste collected,” the auditor wrote. “…The number of illegal dumps cleaned each year…is relatively flat and tends to be around 1,000 each year.”

DEP was dinged in the audit for not collecting output data, zero internal controls, lack of record retention, inability to match project costs with invoices, the discarding of stat sheets in violation of state record-keeping laws and the lack of reporting mechanisms for calculating the state’s recycling rate. Auditors accused DEP for not setting goals for R.E.A.P. to achieve and ignoring requirements to submit effectiveness reports to the Legislature.

Auditors also said R.E.A.P. should also be collecting data on the percentage of households in each county who subscribe to solid waste collection in order to determine which counties are more susceptible to illegal dumping due to limited solid waste disposal services. The audit determined that more resources should be made available to local solid waste authorities to promote the proper disposal of solid waste, as well as the hiring of more local litter control officers.

“The Legislature established county and regional solid waste authorities to develop and implement litter and solid waste control plans and programs to reduce solid waste management problems,” the auditors wrote. “Illegal dumping is a local-level economic issue based on people’s income, the cost of waste collection services and the level of enforcement at the local level.”

To make such reforms possible, the auditors recommended redirecting solid waste assessment revenue to local solid waste authorities. Wandling, in the agency response, pushed back on that idea.

“…The DEP and R.E.A.P. will strenuously oppose any defunding of some of R.E.A.P.’s program in favor of diverting landfill tipping fees to local Solid Waste Authorities,” Wandling said. “We take that stand not to merely defend the status quo, but because we know from years of experience that such a change will critically wound the entire notion of cleaning trash and litter throughout our beautiful state and will return West Virginia to the days when large hillside trash dumps, roadside litter, and degraded streams were the norm.”

DUMPING CASH

One of issues raised by the audit was questionable expenditures from R.E.A.P.’s Pollution Prevention and Open Dumps fund. Several of the expenditures were done as recycling grants to the Kanawha and Calhoun County solid waste authorities. But one grant for $1 million to the Human Resource Development Foundation raised the eyebrows of auditors.

The HRDF, a Morgantown-based non-profit founded by the West Virginia AFL-CIO, acts as a social arm for the group of trade unions. It helps economically disadvantaged people with job training, education, and housing. The organization receives grant funding through state and federal government.

R.E.A.P. awarded the foundation with $1 million to hire temporary workers and contractors for debris removal in Mingo, Logan in Boone counties between October 2016 and September 2017. The $1 million was distributed quarterly to the foundation in four payments of $250,000. Three of those payments were contingent on quarterly reports which were never received by R.E.A.P. An independent audit for the foundation’s use of the grant was also not provided.

According to the legislative audit, HRDF performed 77 cleanups of dumps during the 12-month period costing $87,933, but most of the cleaned-up dumps were in counties not included in the foundation’s grant. While the state paid for the clean-up of the dumps with the Pollution Prevention and Open Dumps fund, the grant indicates that the workers and contractors were to be paid out of the grant monies.

“It raises the question why the DEP did not include the cleanup projects, dates, locations, and tonnage derived from the HRDF grant in its database like other cleanup projects,” the auditors asked. “Although the HRDF provided a narrative and photos indicating significant work conducted in the three counties, the DEP does not have an independent report stating that the $1 million grant was spent as intended, second and third quarter reports were not provided and the DEP did not compile any data on HRDF cleanup projects resulting from the grant.”

The Legislative Auditor’s Office recommended that HRDF should be barred from receiving any further state grants until they submit the required independent report by June 30. The DEP agreed with the audit’s recommendation. In a response Friday, DEP spokesperson Terry Fletcher did provide a performance report to legislative auditors, but it was unclear if this report was similar to the independent report that auditors said was required.

Stephanie Ahart, executive director for the foundation, said Thursday after a request for comment that the criticisms in the legislative audit were new to her.

“After completing the trash/debris removal project for the Department of Environmental Protection in 2017, HRDF filed reports with the DEP detailing our expenditures, and were informed by officials within the DEP that our grant documentation was complete and compliant with all legal requirements,” Ahart said. “At no time were we told that a state auditor had indicated further reporting was needed, so needless to say we were unaware of the June 30, 2020 deadline mentioned in the performance review, which we saw for the first time yesterday, when it was released to the public.”

Ahart said it would be more than happy to provide additional documentation to the DEP and the Legislative Auditor’s Office, including conducting an independent audit of its use of the grant. Ahart also provided copies of previous quarterly reports for the $1 million grant.

“I am extremely proud of the work our nonprofit does to connect displaced West Virginians with training and employment, and it is surprising and disappointing that this project to clean up West Virginia streams and dump sites is now being called into question,” Ahart said. “Now that this has been brought to our attention and we have addressed all of the concerns outlined in the review, it is our hope that the Legislative Auditor’s recommendation of steps toward ‘debarment’ from HRDF receiving future state grants is reversed, so as not to further unjustly tarnish our organization.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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