Report: State Environmental Enforcement Slips Under EPA's Watch
By Jim Malewitz, Staff Writer
State regulators are failing to enforce key provisions of federal environmental law, creating uneven health risks across the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of the inspector general has found. Partly to blame, according to a recently released report , is inconsistent EPA oversight of state agencies.
States "frequently do not meet national goals, and states do not always take necessary enforcement actions," the report says. "In states where enforcement actions are lacking, citizens may be exposed to inequitable health risks."
Using data that states reported to the EPA, the inspector general's office calculated the rates at which states monitor facilities for compliance with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which sets guidelines for management of hazardous waste. The numbers were low across the board.
Between 2003 and 2009, for instance, just three states — Wisconsin, Virginia and North Dakota — performed yearly inspections of more than 30 percent of facilities for Clean Air Act compliance, and 20 states had inspection rates lower than 10 percent. Seventeen states doled out penalties for fewer than half of significant violations, the report says.
Rates of Clean Air Act enforcement tended to be higher, although most states that were reviewed failed to inspect the majority of facilities annually, while applying penalties for fewer than half of violations. For hazardous waste management, rates of inspection and penalization of violators were microscopic for almost every state, the data show.
Louisiana was one particularly low performer in each category. Citing interviews with state and regional regulators, the inspector general's report attributed its low ratings largely to " a lack of resources, natural disasters, and a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry." And for Louisiana, as well as other states, EPA oversight has failed to boost state enforcement, the report says.
"EPA holds different states to different standards," according to the findings, "…this leads to confusion on the part of states, and impedes the public's ability to discern whether states meet national goals."
The report says most EPA requirements are difficult to measure, while the agency's guidance to states can be confusing or outdated.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Environmental Council of the States, agrees with those parts of the inspector general's assessment — especially when it comes to how EPA instructs states to carry out its rulings. Sometimes, the EPA doesn't issue implementation guidelines until two years after a ruling comes out, Brown told Stateline . "It is very silly, and it is very unfair to everyone," he says. Brown adds, however, that the EPA has improved communications with states in drawing up a few rules this year.
Brown says states have long been aware of environmental enforcement problems, partially because of state and federal budget cuts. But he adds that he's not sure that the inspector general's report paints an accurate picture of the issue, particularly because of the broad and potentially incomplete datasets it relied upon.
For instance, he says, lumping into one category violations of all magnitudes — the majority of which tend to be minor — sheds no light on whether states face resulting health risks. Additionally, statistics may have been obscured by poor data reporting by states, he says. In its response to the report, the EPA agreed, calling the data "overly simplistic, and in some cases inaccurate."
The inspector general's report follows a June report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which found that poor state data limit the EPA's ability to enforce provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Between 2005 and 2009, states reported fewer than half of health-based and monitoring violations of the law by community water systems, the report found. And as of March 2010, close to half the violations in each category were still unresolved.