Finding the Right Yardstick
What is the best way to measure the success of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's (EPA) current enforcement efforts? The effectiveness of
EPA's current "smart enforcement" initiative has its supporters and
its critics. Advocates point toward the pollution reductions achieved by the
program. In contrast, many detractors think the Bush administration's approach
is letting polluters off easy.
According to John Peter Suarez, former EPA assistant administrator of the
Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, "Smart enforcement is the
use of the most appropriate enforcement or compliance tools to address the most
significant problems in order to achieve the best outcomes. We employ integrated
strategies that use compliance assistance and incentives, monitoring, data
analysis and civil and criminal enforcement to achieve environmental
results." Instrumental in shaping and promoting the smart enforcement
program during his EPA tenure, Suarez left EPA at the end of January 2004 to
become the general counsel of the Sam's Club Division of Wal-Mart. At press
time, EPA was in the process of naming an acting compliance chief to replace
The smart enforcement program focuses on what the agency determines to be
the most important environmental problems and the most significant cases.
Suarez emphasized that input does not equal output. The program focuses more on
the end results rather than the process.
"Traditional output measures alone don't capture the success of our
program. We've undertaken an effort to capture the success of our program based
on an outcome that shows public health and environmental benefits," Suarez
said. "The only way to judge the success of the enforcement program is by
looking at the end results -- cleaner air, cleaner water and better protected
During a speech Suarez gave to the Dallas Bar Association in December 2003,
he said, "Our enforcement division is not focused on filing a certain
quota of cases. We intend to focus on the strongest cases first."
In December 2003, EPA released its enforcement data for fiscal 2003, which
included civil and criminal penalty figures. Additionally, the data included a
new category for measuring the program's success, "pounds of pollutants
reduced, treated or properly managed." The agency touted that estimated
pollutants reduced, treated or properly managed totaled 600 million pounds,
compared to 260 million pounds in 2002. EPA's other results included: $167
million in administrative, criminal and civil judicial penalties; a combined
total of 146 sentence years for criminals who willfully or knowingly violated
the law; and approximately 19,000 compliance inspections across the nation.
The agency also highlighted its compliance assistance activities. According
to Suarez, the number of facilities assisted by EPA has increased in recent
years by outreach and other efforts. In 2003, EPA assisted more than 700,000
entities, which was a 22 percent increase compared to the previous year. For
more information about EPA's enforcement and compliance program and to access
ECHO, EPA's Web-based Enforcement and Compliance History Online research tool,
Not everybody is impressed by the agency's recent enforcement record. In
response to a letter issued in July 2003 from several Democratic and
independent members of the U.S. House and Senate questioning whether EPA's
enforcement efforts are being hampered by budget constraints, Nikki Tinsley,
the EPA inspector general, prepared a special report that was released on
October 15, 2003. Entitled Congressional Request on EPA Enforcement
Resources and Accomplishments, the report looks at eight areas --
enforcement duties and workload, budget and costs, case load, criminal
investigation division agents, criminal investigation division cases, criminal
investigation division management enforcement effectiveness and water
One of the findings of the report concerns how limited resources affected
the handling of new cases. The staff with EPA's criminal investigation division
indicated that they would not open a new case if they did not believe they had
adequate resources to handle it. According to the report, such cases are referred
to the state enforcement authorities or to the EPA civil division. To learn
more about other details of the report, go to www.epa.gov/oigearth/recent.htm
Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.), the ranking member of the U.S. Senate
Environment and Public Works Committee, was one of those who requested the
report. After reviewing it, he said the document raises as many questions as it
"The report indicates clearly that EPA does not know whether it is able
to adequately enforce the nation's environmental laws nor does the agency have
effective systems in place to generate the appropriate knowledge,"
Despite the apparent problems EPA's smart enforcement program is
experiencing as a result of funding shortages, it still should be applauded for
emphasizing that case-load numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Indeed,
the ultimate yardstick should be how effectively the agency is achieving its
overall goals of cutting industrial pollution and protecting human health and
our nation's natural resources.
This editorial originally appeared in the March 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No.3.
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.