Downward Trend Continues in Enforcement of Environmental Standards

Don’t be surprised if you missed hearing about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual report on its compliance and enforcement efforts for fiscal year (FY) 2014. The report, released the week before Christmas with little public or media attention, highlights what has become a disturbing downward trend over the past several years. Reductions in enforcement can mean less compliance with pollution control requirements and more exposure to toxic chemicals, putting human health and natural resources at risk.

The number of federal inspections carried out by EPA in FY 2014 was more than 25 percent below 2010 levels (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Federal Environmental Inspections, FY10-FY14

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The number of enforcement cases that EPA brought against polluters for failing to comply with federal standards has continued a four-year decline, with particularly steep drops over the past two fiscal years (see Figure 2). The agency reported that the amount of pollution that companies committed to reduce, treat, or eliminate dropped more than 40 and 70 percent in fiscal years 2013 and 2014, respectively, from FY 2012 levels (see Figure 3).

Figure 2. Civil Enforcement Actions Against Polluters, Started and Resolved, FY10-FY14

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Figure 3. Commitments to Reduce, Treat, or Eliminate Pollution, FY10-FY14

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

This trend in reduced inspections and enforcement reflects what EPA notes in the report as “tight budget circumstances,” as well as the impact of the October 2013 federal government shutdown (FY 14 reductions only). EPA also attributes the reduction in inspections and enforcement to a focus on large pollution sources and bigger, more complex enforcement cases.

Clearly, cuts in EPA’s overall budget are undercutting the agency’s compliance and enforcement resources. These cuts reflect the beginning of what the agency projects in its current five-year strategic plan will be a 40 to 50 percent reduction in inspections and enforcement cases over mid-2000 levels. In fact, EPA’s projected FY 15 targets for inspections and new enforcement cases are already 26 and 31 percent below mid-2000 annual averages.

The EPA report says that relying on advanced monitoring technology as the cornerstone of its “next generation” compliance strategy will reduce the need for "boots on the ground" inspections, and increased transparency of monitoring results will provide incentives for companies to comply with rules. While both of these advances should improve compliance in theory, there is little hard evidence to date that they will replace the need for staff in the field. Transparency with consequences for noncompliance (fines) is more effective at ensuring compliance than transparency alone, and it is unclear that public health standards can be adequately enforced without physical inspections.

The irony is that the American people firmly believe we need more enforcement of regulations that protect public health and the environment, not less. A mid-2014 poll found that 87 percent of voters support increased enforcement of laws and regulations, with large majorities supporting better enforcement of water pollution and air quality standards.

Those in industry and the new Congress intent on undermining EPA rules should take note of the American public’s strong support for enforcement of public health protections. Republicans threatening to dramatically cut EPA’s budget in the next two years should consider that cutting EPA’s resources could have a political cost as well as environmental consequences.

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