EPA Enforcement Trend: From Fist to Helping Hand

In the past, many companies probably felt like they had only experienced the back of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) hand when they were smacked with fines and jail time for environmental missteps. Recently, however, EPA has been trying to move beyond traditional command and control enforcement techniques. Instead, the agency is increasingly using incentives to encourage compliance among the regulated community.

EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) has begun to work in partnership with EPA regional offices, state governments, tribal governments and other federal agencies to assist stakeholders in their compliance efforts. EPA's new helping hand approach demonstrates the agency recognizes that many businesses, local governments and federal facilities want to comply with environmental mandates, but need assistance in figuring out how to follow laws that are expanding at exponential rates in volume and complexity. As part of this new policy, the agency has started using the integrated approach of compliance assistance, compliance incentives, self-audits and new types of civil and criminal enforcement measures.

Now members of the regulated community can contact EPA's national compliance centers for fast, free help in dealing with tricky compliance issues. For today's harried environmental managers weighted down with large workloads and tight deadlines, these centers can provide online and fax back assistance services. In addition, they offer technical assistance with federal and state environmental regulations and pollution prevention strategies to the following sectors heavily populated with small businesses: agriculture, automotive service and repair, chemical manufacturing, federal government, local government, metal finishing, organic coating, printed wire board manufacturing, printing and transportation.

EPA also sponsors approximately 89 hotlines and clearinghouses that provide free ways of obtaining assistance with environmental requirements, especially for small businesses. The Small Business Ombudsman Hotline provides interested parties with a list of all the hot lines and help in selecting the most effective hotlines depending upon information needs. Key hotlines include:

Small Business Ombudsman - 800.368.5888;

Resource Conservation Recovery Act/Underground Storage Tank/Superfund Hotline - 800.424.9346;

Toxic Substances and Asbestos Information - 202.554.1404;

Safe Drinking Water - 800.426.4791;

Stratospheric Ozone/Chlorofluorocarbon Information - 800.296.1996;

Clean Air Technical Center - 919.541.0800; and

Wetlands Hotline - 800.832.7828.

Additionally, OECA has developed a wide variety of other compliance assistance tools including plain language compliance guides, training modules, compliance checklists, videos and resource guides. EPA estimates that in Fiscal Year 2001, it provided compliance assistance to more than one million individuals and businesses by direct assistance or through its compliance assistance centers.

Not surprisingly, many EPA officials think compliance assistance works best and is most utilized when there is a credible enforcement threat associated with the program. So despite EPA showing its kinder, gentler side through its outreach efforts to stakeholders concerning compliance issues, the agency still uses plenty of muscle in prosecuting polluters. In fact, during this past year while the agency was pushing its new compliance assistance programs, its enforcement division was going after violators more aggressively than ever.

On January 31, 2002, EPA released data on its enforcement and compliance assurance accomplishments for FY2001, which included several new records. The highlights are as follows:

  • Actions requiring violators to invest $4.3 billion in pollution control and cleanup measures - the highest ever amount;
  • A vigorous criminal enforcement program resulting in prison sentences totaling 256 years - an increase of more that 100 years over FY 2000 - for criminal violations of environmental laws; such violations also resulted in nearly $95 million in fines and restitution;
  • Enforcement actions requiring violators to reduce an estimated 660 million pounds of pollutants and treat and safely manage an estimated record 1.84 billion pounds of contaminants;
  • The settlement of 222 civil judicial cases and the issuance of 3,228 administrative orders and field citations;
  • Supplemental environmental projects totaling $89 million - up from $55.8 million in FY 2000. (These involve actions beyond injunctive relief in which a violator agrees to undertake to protect the environment and human health in exchange for a penalty reduction.);
  • Violators paying $125 million in civil penalties to the United States and an additional $25.2 million to states; and
  • Agreements under the agency's audit policy with 364 companies that resulted in the correction of violations at 1,754 facilities. The audit policy is intended to encourage self-detection, disclosure and correction of violations in exchange for a waiver or reduction in penalties.

EPA is now juggling the distinctly different roles of actively prosecuting violators of environmental laws while at the same time working closely with the regulated community to find workable and flexible compliance solutions. The agency should be commended for trying new methods to induce better environmental performance by industry, local communities and the general public.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2002 issue of Environmental Protection.

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