The usual suspects

What a lineup - all bad actors with rap sheets a mile long. First, there's Denny, the Dinted Drum, a slimy character just oozing with guilt and methyl ethyl death. Then, no less dangerous is Nox Ne'er-do-well, a sneaky plant whose stacks belch out tons of hazardous emissions when regulators aren't looking. And finally, rounding out the polluter Gang of Three is Carbon Monoxide Carl, a vehicular thug with a mean tailpipe that has left a trail of noxious fumes from Los Angeles to Bangor, Maine.

Federal and state environmental enforcement personnel continually deal with these types and worse when trying to track down perpetrators of crimes against the environment. In their fight to deter pollution and ensure greater compliance with environmental laws, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state environmental agencies have become more aggressive in recent years. Statistics related to EPA's enforcement actions in fiscal year 2000 were unavailable at press time. However, according to Steven Herman, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, in 1999 more than $166 million in civil penalties was paid to resolve environmental enforcement actions. This was up from less than $100 million the previous year. In addition, settlements in enforcement cases in 1999 resulted in outcomes worth about $3.6 billion, which included actions required to correct violations and clean up Superfund sites.

Of course, it's important to remember that state agencies still handle the majority of the enforcement actions for violations of environmental laws. The main reason for this is that the major environmental statutes such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act delegate the authority to run their programs to the states. In 2000, many states took a tougher stance against polluters and increased their spending on environmental protection, including enforcement initiatives.

For fiscal year 2001, EPA requested $403.8 million for enforcement activities. However, at press time, the 2001 budget still hadn't been approved. EPA expects to spend the great majority of the budget on direct enforcement issues such as inspections and criminal and civil investigations. The agency hopes to receive $92 million for civil enforcement through which it will develop, litigate and settle civil and administrative cases. In contrast, EPA has requested $41.5 million for funding criminal enforcement. EPA officials describe criminal enforcement as "the agency's most powerful enforcement tool against the most significant environmental violations."

In September 2000, EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance released its proposed enforcement priorities for fiscal years 2002-2003 (65 Federal Register 58,273), in which it focuses in areas the agency considers to have the most impact on human health and the environment. EPA listed its top proposed four priorities as storm water runoff, Clean Air Act new source review requirements, cruise ships and federal facilities. Besides these high priorities, EPA proposes to focus on the areas of:automotive salvaging, mining; hazardous waste transport and storage; pesticides; particulate matter air pollution; and oil production and refining.

EPA will issue a final memorandum on enforcement priorities in April. For more information, contact Frederick Stiehl, at EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at (202) 564-2290.

After the conclusion of a presidential election that seemingly wouldn't end, what's in store for our nation's polluters now that a Republican president is in charge? Many EPA insiders predict that the changing of the guard to the new Bush administration will probably not drastically impact EPA's criminal enforcement division.

President Bush's past approach to environmental enforcement as Texas governor is certainly one indication of how he'll deal with this issue at the national level. In the article "Ballot 2000" in our October 2000 issue that is available in the archives on our Web site,, we conducted exclusive in-depth interviews of the three leading presidential candidates concernig a number of environmental issues. Then presidential candidate Bush stated that if elected he would work "to ensure the necessary resources for vigorous environmental and natural resource protection." He emphasized that during his tenure as the governor of Texas, state environmental protection spending increased almost 30 percent. However, the Texas Sierra Club has criticized Bush for having "a laissez faire attitude" toward protecting the Texas environment from polluters. Due to Bush's mixed signals about his environmental policies, it's hard to predict how our usual suspects will fare during the next four years.

This article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 2, on page 6.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.