Proposed challenge coin
EPA commissions coins for 2017 responders
02:36 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

The Environmental Protection Agency is spending more than $8,500 on challenge coins to congratulate its response to 2017 natural disasters, including the hurricanes that ravaged Texas and Puerto Rico.

After three bids, a contract was awarded to The Lapel Pins Plus Network LLC for “response award development - Challenge Coin” with a request to design a two-inch color 3D “coin award” that displays the EPA Emergency Response program logo on the inner circle and “HURRICANES HARVEY, IRMA AND MARIA - THE CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES” on the outer circle.

The back of the coin, to be designed by the contractor, should “convey the sentiment that EPA staff from all across the country worked together to respond to the incidents from Puerto Rico to California (and regions in between),” the contract says. It also says the coin should include the phrase “response excellence,” the year “2017,” and should say “PROTECTING HUMAN HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT ALL ACROSS AMERICA.”

The contract details, obtained both through public records and by the political action committee American Bridge, show that 1,750 coins, along with boxes, are to be delivered by the end of the month.

Challenge coins are historically collectable pieces of recognition that originated in the military, but have recently become more popular with civilian agencies.

But celebrating the EPA’s work during natural disasters doesn’t sit well with several groups who flagged the coins as inappropriate, since many considered the administration’s response to be inadequate.

“It was definitely lacking,” said Eric Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “From a public health standpoint, what’s really concerning is that they did not address the drinking water quality” in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, he said, citing reports of waterborne illnesses and widespread bacterial contamination, boil water advisories for a majority of the island and reports that people were getting their drinking water from Superfund sites had not been properly locked down by the EPA.

“Every state and territory is required to have an emergency drinking water plan in place for natural disasters and obviously when EPA approves that plan, they are supposed to affirm that there is an adequate plan for response, and EPA did approve the plan, but clearly they didn’t have an adequate plan for drinking water,” Olson said.

In Houston, where Hurricane Harvey caused massive unprecedented flooding, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site was damaged and began leaking waste. The EPA had initially declared it safe.

“They didn’t want to make public how bad the situation was,” said Neil Carman, a former Texas environmental official who now works with the Sierra Club. “It’s a complicated situation but I can’t believe that they are giving awards to people for this. It’s kind of disgusting to me, because the huge concern is that a lot of material escaped and the flooding carried the dioxin to people’s yards.”

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended the contract.

“This is not news,” Wilcox said. “Throughout the federal government challenge coins are awarded to various individuals, and the dedicated public servants who worked tirelessly throughout the 2017 disaster relief efforts should be commended for their service.”

Lapel Pins Plus declined to comment for this story.

CNN’s Greg Wallace contributed to this report.