The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal agency tasked with protecting human health and the environment. To accomplish that mission, it performs a variety of functions, one of which is the enforcement of environmental regulations and the investigation of potential violations. The cases that the EPA investigates can have wide-reaching effects: they’ve helped enforce standards around clean air, clean water, and the ways hazardous chemicals are handled.
Practically every modern investigation includes some element of forensics, and that holds true at EPA as well. Both digital forensics and forensic science are essential to investigating violations of environmental regulations. But EPA’s uniquely green mission distinguishes it from some of the more popular (and more televised) three-letter agencies, and its forensics experts possess a potent mix of intelligence, passion, and idealism.
Formed in 1970, the mission of EPA is as important as ever. Climate change represents an existential threat to humanity. For the last seven years, American concern about the environment has grown steadily. For those who work for EPA, protecting the environment, and the people in it, is their top priority.
Read on to learn more about how EPA uses forensics to achieve its mission.
Forensics at EPA is housed within the Office of Criminal Enforcement Forensics and Training (OCEFT). Underneath that umbrella, forensics work related to the natural sciences is done by the National Enforcement Investigations Center (NEIC), which is split into three branches:
But forensic science is often applied differently at EPA than at many other federal agencies.
“At NEIC, we’re like the crime scene investigators (CSI) for the investigating agents,” says Linda TeKrony, Section Supervisor of Staff for the Field Branch of the NEIC at EPA. “We don’t do fingerprints. We don’t do blood splatter. We don’t do that traditional type of forensics. But we do collect scientific evidence that is central to the agents making their case, whether it’s determining if something’s a hazardous waste, or if an emission happened over a permit limit, whether that was discharged to water or air.”
Digital forensics is conducted through the forensics and response section of the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) at EPA, which includes the National Computer Forensics Lab (NCFL).
“From the digital forensics aspect, we focus on computers, computer servers, cell phones, and other data-containing devices,” says Jeffrey Foster, Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) for the Forensics and Response Section of CID at EPA. “These are becoming more prevalent as businesses move from a paper world to a cyber world. We see in our criminal investigations more information and evidence being collected in the form of digital data, as opposed to paper documents like in the past.”
EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment, and the type of cases it investigates are impactful and wide-ranging. During the Deepwater Horizon Incident, which is considered the largest marine oil spill in history, EPA used forensics to ascertain that sampled oil had indeed come from Deepwater Horizon, and not previous spills. Such work is crucial for determining responsibility, which dissuades other forms of corporate misbehavior.
“The regulations are out there,” TeKrony says. “Our job is to keep people in compliance, because the regulations protect the environment. People will either comply or they won’t. But if they don’t, they shouldn’t get away with it.”
At EPA’s NEIC, a typical day for a forensics expert might mean talking to investigating agents about their cases and the problems they’re seeing. It can also include making plans to go into the field, writing health and safety plans, coordinating with agents for search warrants, and packing up equipment. Some forensics is performed on-site, and some is taken back to the lab for further analysis, where experts look for evidence of hazardous waste, water pollutants, and air pollutants.
“We have a toxicologist who works closely with the case team, explaining what certain chemicals do to people and the environment,” TeKrony says. “We also have a statistician on staff who helps us develop our sampling protocols. Because if you’ve got a case where you have thousands of containers of potential hazardous waste, there’s no way you can sample thousands of containers. And so the statistician helps us develop a statistical sampling protocol to minimize the number of samples, but also maximize what we can say about them.”
In digital forensics, the responsibilities aren’t as split between teams and branches. It’s common for one of the digital forensics experts at CID to go out into the field, collect evidence, and then return to the lab to process data and perform the analysis themselves, often seeing a case out from start to finish. Specializations exist in digital forensics, but most of EPA’s digital forensics team is certified similarly, with rapid and ongoing education required to match new niche areas of tech and data.
“Really, no two days are the same, but that’s one thing that makes forensics interesting,” Foster says. “Every case is a little different, and as time goes on, the tools we use are different and the methods we’re using are different. The process of forensics is an evolving art.”
For the NEIC, EPA is looking for forensics experts with degrees in the natural sciences or in engineering. While significant training occurs at NEIC before a new hire goes out into the field, that foundational science or engineering background is crucial. For digital forensics, however, the criteria are different: everyone who works in digital forensics at CID is a criminal investigator first.
“I have people in my staff with a vast array of backgrounds,” Foster says. “I have people that have a chemistry background and have been with EPA their whole career. And then there are other people who came up in another federal agency and then came over to the EPA to do forensics. But the thing that we all have in common is that we’re all criminal investigators.”
No matter one’s academic background, working in forensics at EPA requires certain soft skills. TeKrony highlights the importance of learning from one’s mistakes and working as part of a team. Foster points to integrity and persistence as hallmarks of his ideal digital forensics expert. But both emphasize allegiance to EPA’s mission as the most important characteristic of any new hire.
“A sense of mission is central to why people work for EPA,” TeKrony says. “Protecting human health and the environment is a core thing. When you’re out in the field, and you’re at a site, and you see the houses right next to where you are, or you see kids playing in the water, you realize that your work impacts those people that live there day to day. It’s a very strong mission. It’s why I work here, and it’s why I’ve worked here for so long.”
Positions for forensics experts at EPA are extremely competitive. But there are ways for aspiring forensics experts to put themselves on a path towards attaining one. It starts with setting up a profile at USAJobs.gov, and entering keywords that will alert you when relevant jobs become available. While they wait for their dream job, potential candidates can pursue experience in environmental justice, forensic science, and criminal investigations through adjacent avenues: state environmental departments, consultancies, or nonprofits and NGOs.
It requires patience, dedication, and a little kismet, but those who persist will be rewarded with a workplace of like-minded colleagues who share their passion for protecting human health and the environment.
“EPA is a great organization to work for,” Foster says. “It’s made up of people that really have their heart in it. For me, that’s what makes this job the greatest.”
Forensics will continue to play a critical role in the EPA’s investigation of regulatory violations. Environmental regulations are constantly evolving, and they tend to be steeped in the complexities of their underlying science. As those regulations adapt to industrial and commercial trends, forensic experts must also adapt. TeKrony points to the example of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs): when they became a major focus of regulatory action, EPA had to research new equipment and new methods to collect and analyze HFC evidence. But the technology used to analyze the environment is evolving quickly, too.
“In a lot of areas, the tech is advancing so quickly,” TeKrony says. “We’re looking at remote sensing: installing a sampler and being able to check it remotely. Or driving a van around that can sample the ambient air and tell you instantaneously what’s in it. As technology advances, there will be lots of opportunities for our program to advance what we do and to make it even more efficient for the agents as they’re investigating.”
In digital forensics, the rate of change is even more accelerated. There are new forms of hardware and software, both from which to collect data, and with which to analyze extracted data, practically every day. Digital forensics experts have to be engaged in a gameful state of constant learning.
“Forensics has a home with the EPA,” Foster says. “We’re prosecuting more and more cases every year, and forensics is a big part of those cases. For the future, for us in the digital forensic world, it’s a matter of staying on top of technology, and staying on top of what’s available to help us get through all this information that we gather and build into strong cases for prosecution.”
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.