EPA's new sector approach: Tailored to fit

Tired of shopping off-the-rack for your facility's permit needs? Well, pretty soon you may be able to move beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all approach of state and federal agencies and instead deal with regulators who will try to customize their assistance to deal with the specific environmental problems of your industrial sector.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally acknowledging the limitations of its past approach to permitting and enforcement, which largely lumps diverse industrial sectors together. This approach evolved from the way EPA was set up in 1970. From its inception, the agency was organized according to the individual environment statutes such as the Clean Air Act (CAA), Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA). As a result, EPA has carried out its mission according to environmental media (air, water or land) or by chemicals (pesticides, toxic substances or hazardous wastes) and has focused its efforts within the boundaries of these media or chemical programs rather than using an integrated, multimedia approach for particular industrial sectors.

It is true that some EPA programs have focused their regulations on specific sectors; the water quality program sets effluent guidelines for individual industrial sectors, and the air program issues regulations governing certain industries' air emissions. But, overall, EPA has devoted little attention to regulating industries on a multimedia basis.

Critics of the command-and-control approach point out that it is often inflexible, resulting in higher costs and discouraging technological innovation that can lower costs and exceed compliance requirements. In addition, critics argue that the focus on the waste produced by industrial processes fails to promote front-of-the-pipe pollution prevention programs. Another perceived shortcoming of the agency's current policy is that it does not encourage the involvement of the stakeholders outside of the formal public comment and hearing process.

EPA officials have been investigating new approaches to environmental protection that go beyond current programs. In 1994, EPA launched the Common Sense Initiative that experimented with a multi-stakeholder, sector-based approach. Impressed with the results of the sector approach, EPA Administrator Carol Browner is now promoting the integration of this concept into the core functions of the agency.

EPA's Standing Committee on Sectors, part of the National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy, approved the Fiscal Year 2000 Sector Action Plan in late October. The plan implements multimedia, industrial sector-based approaches to solving environmental problems. The 2000 plan will launch at least 10 new projects, and will carry over several uncompleted projects from the FY 1999 Sector Action Plan, according to Greg Ondich of EPA's Office of Policy and Reinvention.

As part of the FY 2000 action plan, EPA is using a new classification system known as the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) that groups U.S. industries into 20 broad sectors. The fifteen NAICS sectors identified in the plan include agriculture, automotive manufacturing, chemicals, computers, dry cleaning, iron and steel, local government, metal finishing, mining, petroleum refining, pharmaceuticals, printing, the service industry and utilities.

The plan includes several promising initiatives, including implementing sector-based projects to address regional priority problems and sector-based approaches for international activities.

According to Ondich, the agency is starting a pilot program in three states in which it is developing a multi-media permit for the printing industry that will combine elements of the Title V air quality permit, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) water quality permit and the RCRA waste permit. For the most part, however, EPA will continue to use single media permitting for at least the next five years.

To learn more about EPA's FY 2000 Sector-Based Environmental Protection Action Plan, visit www.epa.gov/sectors. Questions about the plan can be directed to Andy Teplitsky at EPA's Office of Policy and Reinvention at (202) 260-4088.

It will probably be a while before the implementation of the new sector-based approach is all sewn up. Yet, when EPA finishes the transition, members of the regulated community should find that this new customized style of enforcement is a better fit for them and an improved means of protecting the environment.

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This article originally appeared in the November, 1999 issue of Environmental Protection magazine, Vol. 10, Number 11, p. 6.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of Environmental Protection.

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