WASHINGTON -- Private laboratories are increasingly being caught falsifying test results for water supplies, petroleum products, underground tanks and soil, hampering the government's ability to ensure Americans are protected by environmental laws, investigators say.
The fraud has caused millions of people to fill their cars with substandard gasoline that may have violated clean air standards, or to drink water not properly tested for safety, the officials told The Associated Press.
In addition, officials making decisions at hazardous waste cleanup sites have relied on companies that fraudulently tested air, water and soil samples.
"What has come to our attention is that outside labs are oftentimes in bed with the people who hired them, and conspired to commit environmental crime," said David Uhlmann, chief of the Justice Department's environmental crimes section.
The EPA's watchdog against fraud, inspector general Nikki Tinsley, has called the rise of lab fraud a disturbing trend.
"If it was my drinking water I'd consider it very serious," she said, declining to identify locations affected by the ongoing investigation.
Private laboratories test products that are regulated by anti-pollution laws, and the results allow companies to certify that they're meeting the requirements of environmental protection laws.
In one instance three years ago, investigators discovered fraudulent test results by contract employees at the Environmental Protection Agency's lab in Chicago. The head of the laboratory was transferred and the contractor, Lockheed Martin, was suspended from performing tests.
The Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency have prosecuted dozens of employees and laboratories the past several years for fraudulent testing.
Officials said they aren't certain whether an increasing number of labs are falsifying tests, or whether more are being caught through more aggressive investigations and whistle-blowers.
Tinsley said there were numerous reasons for lab misconduct: poor training, ineffective ethics programs, shrinking markets and efforts to cut costs.
In some cases, the labs duped the companies that submitted samples for testing. In other instances, the companies were part of a conspiracy with the labs, officials said.
Sometimes the fraud included "driveway tests," so-named because employees generate them on a computer in their own driveways, without ever visiting the facilities.
Whatever the case, lab fraud hampers an environmental protection system that frequently relies on voluntary compliance by companies backed by test results, officials said.
"If we can't rely upon science with supporting lab results, then we don't know what's out there for the public to eat or drink or use," said J.P. Suarez, the EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance.
"When people may not be getting harmed, they may be getting ripped off, using products that are not what they're paying for. And companies are paying for services they're not getting," he said.