Applicants, how compliant are your staging areas? Follow these recommendations to avoid de-obligation of funds.
De-obligation of funds can occur for several reasons. It can be easy to overlook compliance measures—such as those necessary to establish a staging area—in the days, weeks, and months following a disaster. That critical reaction period can be chaotic, and local emergency agencies are often more focused on the health and safety of their communities than compliance and documentation.
Yet, in the haste to demonstrate progress toward recovery, it’s vital to remember regulation compliance—such as FEMA’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process—or else inadvertently risk de-obligation or loss of funds.
Staging areas refer to the location where materials and resources are kept until construction on a project can begin. It’s not uncommon for funding recipients to promote staging areas to publicly indicate work is about to begin. Because of the urgency to demonstrate progress, staging areas are often funded from recipient reserves while they wait for FEMA reimbursement. That puts recipients at financial risk, especially as staging area regulation and guidance lacks clarity.
Many FEMA RECs (Record of Environmental Consideration) resolve that staging areas can be defined at closeout. Applicants can run into trouble when they impact areas outside the project’s scope—including the selection of staging areas for fieldwork. For that reason, it’s critical to have FEMA review staging area locations prior to doing any work to ensure minimal impact on NEPA regulations—even if your grant documents do not specifically require that action. It’s also important to always document the location and justification of selected staging areas.
Our experts helped write the federal guidelines for disaster recovery compliance and we assist federal, state, and local officials in complex recovery projects and grants management. Here we share our recommendations for selecting a staging area in compliance with FEMA’s Public Assistance process. While compliance with staging areas is a specific example, it is a common issue and some of the recommendations for addressing it can be applied to similar scenarios that may also lead to de-obligation.
Considerations when selecting a staging area
While not all-inclusive, these recommendations can help you select compliant staging areas early in the process.
1. Whenever possible, think of staging areas EARLY in project development and include the area in the scope of work. That will provide visibility to FEMA, and they can include EHP-related concerns during the evaluation of the project.
2. Talk to the community to help identify previously disturbed areas and undefined archaeological sites, both of which can halt an undertaking if discovered.
3. Make sure all participants are aware of possible impacts when choosing a staging area. That includes the contractor and the workers, especially the machinery operators. A wrong decision by a worker can threaten the outcome of the project.
4. Do not use fill to level or otherwise create a staging area. Use of fill requires further evaluation by FEMA and may alter the composition of wetlands, stormwater drainage, and cultural resources. For the same reasons, avoid soil movement.
5. Whenever possible, choose an area that has been previously asphalted or impacted. It can be the same road, adjacent parking lots, or abandoned paved areas, among others. Use previously filled areas when available. That may require coordination with other parties.
6. Choose an area that will not require tree or significant vegetation removal. If the area has vegetation, inspect the area prior to its removal to avoid harm to species.
7. If vegetation removal is required, ensure that the vegetation does not include any species of concern. To determine this, you may need a biologist who can identify both flora and fauna species and provide information on how to deal with them.
8. Make sure the conditions of the staging area are documented prior, during, and after use. Take pictures with mobile devices and remember to upload photos to a secure place.
9. Be aware of stormwater flow when selecting the area. That will reduce the possibility of discharging contaminants in the stormwater runoff. Also, if a low-lying area is used, the materials and equipment may become damaged or unusable during storm events, which can happen at any moment.
10. Provide cover for the materials, which can add contaminants to the stormwater or can erode. That can be achieved by properly placing tarps and/or elevating equipment or materials from the ground.
11. Machinery should be kept in good working condition; this will reduce leaks into runoff.
12. Inspect the area frequently. Document and take pictures during these inspections.
13. Implement good housekeeping practices to ensure contaminants are not carried out in stormwater. That practice must include means to contain and avoid spill into the environment.
The compliance imperative
It is extremely important to identify staging areas that are compliant with federal and state EHP laws to avoid or minimize the risk of fund de-obligation. FEMA’s Public Assistance Appeals Database shows a prerogative to de-obligate or reduce funds because the applicant did not have sufficient or adequate information, did not inform FEMA of work beyond the approved scope, or did not follow compliance requirements.
In any project, there is always a risk of having an adverse effect on the environment, endangered species, or archaeological sites. Within the context of federal funding, that can have huge implications for the recovery of government installations, critical facilities, and a return to normalcy, if these are the only funds available. Following the practical recommendations above will help you develop the project in a more compliant way, thus reducing the risk of de-obligation after reconstruction has been engaged.