WASHINGTON, December 12, 2013—The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposes to conduct fewer inspections and plans to initiate fewer cases against industrial polluters in the next five years, according to its Draft Strategic Plan, which is open for public comment until January 3, 2014.
According to the 86-page document, EPA proposes to decrease the number of federal inspections and evaluations from 20,000 in 2012 to 14,000 per year between 2014 and 2018. EPA also proposes to initiate 2,320 civil judicial and administrative enforcement cases against violators, down from 3,900 in 2009 and 3,000 in 2012. It also plans to conclude 2,000 civil and administrative enforcement cases, down from 3,800 in 2009 and 3,000 in 2012.
EPA said that the changes were prompted by a new focus on the biggest polluters as the most effective means of cleaning up the country’s air and water.
Justifying this move, EPA spokesperson Alisha Johnson told the Los Angeles Times this decrease is a better way to allocate resources, but should not be seen as a move away from enforcement on the part of the agency.
“From our work on the biggest enforcement cases, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, to aggressively pursuing smaller cases that can reduce harmful health impacts and have the greatest environmental benefit, our enforcement work will continue to save lives and protect our environment,” she said.
The agency is also proposing to scale back the amount of hazardous waste cleaned up each year as a result of enforcement cases from 4,400 million pounds in 2012 to an average of around 1,840 million pounds per year for a total of 9,200 million pounds for the entire five years. It also proposes to reduce the amount of toxic and pesticide pollutants reduced, treated, and eliminated as a result of enforcement cases to an average of 2.2 million pounds per year, down from 3.8 million per year from 2005 to 2008.
Giving priority to stopping the larger polluters, the plan emphasizes prevention and new technology as a way to monitor potential violators.
Next Generation Compliance
Under a part of the Strategic Plan known as “Next Generation Compliance,” EPA shifts reporting responsibility to industry by requiring companies, states and other entities to report compliance data electronically, according to Emily Yehle of Environment and Energy Publishing News.
EPA argues that this new compliance model will save “time and money while improving effectiveness and public transparency.”
In a recent interview reported by Yehle, EPA administrator Cynthia Giles used Shell Oil Co. as an example of what the new system should look like.
After a $2.6 million fine for violation of the Clean Water Act by one of its refineries in Texas, Shell agreed to spend $115 million to control pollution in the plant in question. The funds will be spent on a system that allows EPA inspectors to monitor the plant’s gas and steam flow remotely.
“In tight budget times, the agency hopes such technology will spread, leading to more electronic reporting and greater regulatory compliance,” writes Yehle.
However, it remains to be seen how many companies will voluntarily make such a large investment rather than pay the relatively small fine and how far the technology will spread if it comes with a high price tag.
Is electronic and self-reporting effective?
There is also the question of whether entities can be trusted to report accurate data, on which the success of the Next Generation Compliance depends.
“As part of Next Generation Compliance,” states the Strategic Plan, “EPA is building upon recent, measureable successes in innovative compliance approaches such as its ‘Drinking Water Targeting Tool.’”
Established in 2009, the Drinking Water Targeting Tool is an electronic program where states take primary responsibility for reporting compliance data to EPA. Using this data, the Targeting Tool prioritizes public water systems that do not comply for enforcement by the agency.
“Use of the tool resulted in a decrease of approximately 69 percent in the number of public water systems classified as ‘priority’ between January 2010 and April 2013,” states the Strategic Plan, as evidence of how well electronic reporting works.
The Targeting Tool, however, relies on the accuracy of the data provided by states to conduct effective oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In 2011 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that states did not provide accurate compliance data to EPA using the Targeting Tool. In the 14 states audited, GAO found that all 14 inaccurately reported 84 percent of monitoring violations that should have been reported and 26 percent health-based violations that should have been reported.
Despite these problems, however, EPA is proposing to expand this system, trusting that states and regulated industries will provide accurate data.
Critics and environmentalists are alarmed by the proposed changes.
“It is bewildering why the EPA would pull cops off the beat who’ve been protecting our air and water from big polluters,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, told the Times. “We urge the EPA to reconsider these proposed cuts.”
EPA defends this new system by stating that too much enforcement may discourage industries from investing in innovation.
“We recognize that preventing problems is both cheaper and more effective than taking action after they happen; however, our traditional metrics do not adequately account for work to prevent pollution,” states the Draft Strategic Plan. “By focusing only on enforcement actions the measures can have the inadvertent effect of discouraging innovative approaches that could improve compliance, and undervalue strong work by states to improve compliance.”
Critics see the new shift as a reduction in inspection, oversight and enforcement that will allow small polluters to become big ones.
“So they’re suggesting that strong criminal enforcement can be counterproductive to pollution control, but they don’t explain that statement,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, to Yehle. “There appears to be much more of an attempt to induce polluters to invest in themselves and call it a penalty.”
Those opposed to the plan argue that if budget is an issue, instead of cutting back on enforcement EPA should cut back on programs that have less of an impact on public health, like grants and education campaigns.
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