HUD’s independent watchdog launches review of radon policies after Oregonian investigation

The independent watchdog for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has launched a review examining whether federal policies are protecting tenants in public housing from exposure to cancer-causing radon gas.

The review, announced publicly this week, comes four months after The Oregonian/OregonLive published its “Cancer Cloud” investigation exposing failed protections by HUD and local housing authorities across the country.

Details of the review are scarce. The Office of Inspector General notified HUD about its plans in a March 13 letter, referencing an attached “evaluation design” giving agency officials “more information about our planned work.”

But the Office of Inspector General refused a request from The Oregonian/OregonLive to provide that scope of work. Spokesman Darryl Madden instead required the newsroom to file an open records request, which has not yet been fulfilled.

U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, Democrats from Oregon, have been pushing HUD to take action since the newsroom’s investigation. They welcomed the inspector general’s review.

“After months of sounding the alarm over the agency’s failure to address radon contamination, I’m pleased that the Office of Inspector General is launching an investigation to hold HUD accountable,” Merkley said in a statement. “HUD’s response so far has been insufficient, and we’re going to keep holding their feet to the fire and pushing to ensure that tenants have a safe place to call home.”

“If it takes a bright spotlight on an agency to spur an IG investigation, then so be it,” Wyden said in a statement. “I am happy to have been part of the oversight that caused this to happen.”

The Oregonian/OregonLive in November revealed that HUD has failed to protect tenants in public housing from the risks of exposure to radon, which kills an estimated 21,000 people each year and is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in America.

Congress in 1988 directed HUD to develop a policy protecting residents in public housing from exposure to hazardous levels of radon. But HUD didn’t act aggressively. The agency waited until 2013 to begin strongly encouraging testing by local housing authorities, which collectively operate about 1 million units of public housing nationwide.

The Oregonian/OregonLive found that HUD failed to test for radon in public housing units it directly controlled. The newsroom also surveyed 64 local housing authorities across the country – from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine – finding that fewer than one in three could document radon testing.

Reporters also conducted independent testing in several cities, identifying high radon in public housing units in Denver, Huntsville, Alabama, and Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Huntsville Housing Authority responded to the investigation even before it was published, launching its own testing that confirmed widespread problems in more than 60 units at a large public housing complex. But the agency didn’t disclose it to residents until The Oregonian/OregonLive filed a public records request and obtained the results.

The Office of Inspector General has now launched an “evaluation” to determine the extent to which HUD’s “radon policies protect residents from the hazardous health effects of exposure to indoor radon,” according to a memo from Brian Pattison, the assistant inspector general for evaluation.

Evaluations are used to examine the actions of HUD and are typically broader than narrowly focused audits. They typically take six to eight months to complete.

In addition to reviewing HUD’s public housing policies, the evaluation will also examine rules for HUD’s multifamily housing program. HUD adopted more stringent radon testing requirements for that program in 2013, at the same time it only strongly encouraged testing in public housing.

This isn’t the first time the Office of Inspector General has been made aware of HUD’s inaction on radon. Representatives for the testing industry pushed for a review in 2004, arguing that HUD had sidestepped its mandate from Congress.

The inspector general at the time, Kenneth Donohue, initially pressed HUD to explain its actions but then dropped the matter after agency attorneys cited the “lengthy and complex” legislative history of radon and “possible policy ramifications.”

Madden, the inspector general’s spokesman, declined to say what prompted this week’s announced evaluation but said it was not based on the newsroom’s reporting.

An evaluation typically begins through a concern identified by senior leaders at the Office of Inspector General, from HUD officials or through a congressional request, according to the agency’s website.

At least 25 federal lawmakers have pressed HUD and local housing authorities to act in response to the newsroom’s investigation. Eight U.S. senators, including Wyden and Merkley of Oregon, met with HUD Secretary Ben Carson this month to discuss the issue. But neither Wyden nor Merkley asked for the inspector general’s review.

Matt Schuck, a HUD spokesman, said in a brief statement Thursday: “We look forward to the OIG input.”