The main tool available to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to limit the amount of pollution discharged into the nation’s waterways is a system of permits issued to polluters that restricts how much they may discharge. This permitting scheme, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), requires permittees to monitor their operations and report back to the EPA or an approved state environmental agency. On those data rest EPA’s ability to enforce the terms of the permits, and thus control pollution that is harmful to the environment and human health.
NPDES permit-holders are required to submit annual reports that include information on whether the polluter met the terms of the permit. Those reports are among the most important compliance assurance and enforcement tools available to the EPA, the states, and, by extension, the communities affected by polluting operations.
In addition to providing critical compliance information, the reports also generate mountains of paperwork. They are sent by mail—the physical kind, not electronic—and EPA staff or their state counterparts must then enter the information into a database by hand, an error-prone process that can take years to complete.
It’s probably not hard to imagine what’s coming next! Sure enough, in July 2013, the EPA published in the Federal Register a proposed rule that would require electronic reporting for current paper-based NPDES reports, and initiating what became a five-month comment period, after one extension. Then, on December 1, 2014, the agency took the unusual step of publishing a Supplemental Notice for the proposed eReporting rule, addressing some of the issues raised during the initial public comment period. Most of the comments came from state governments and the concerns focused on the implementation and operation of the rule, and especially its potential up-front cost.
Over the last month, CPRBlog has published a series of posts highlighting critical rules in various stages of development at the EPA and other agencies. The rules are drawn from our recent Issue Alert, Barack Obama’s Path to Progress in 2015–16: Thirteen Essential Regulatory Actions. Today’s post, on the eReporting rule, will use my exasperating experience trying to obtain public records to monitor pollution levels at industrial animal farms as a case study on the need for this 21st century rule, along the way highlighting its cost-savings potential.
In March 2014, I requested reports from the large-scale animal farms in nine Maryland Eastern Shore counties, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). CAFOs are required to submit these annual reports as a condition of their NPDES permits. I had anticipated that records from 2014 might not be available, so I asked for reports from 2011, 2012, and 2013. The agency had no problem sending the reports from 2011—three years later, it had entered the paper-based data into a spreadsheet and could send them electronically. The remaining years were a different story. No records were yet available for 2013 and the 2012 records had to be collected, redacted, and scanned by overburdened state employees — the same employees who were also expected to approve permits and inspect operations. I received reports from three of the nine Eastern Shore counties in July, three more of the nine in November, and am still waiting for data from the remaining three counties.
I shared these public reports with our allies at the Environmental Integrity Project, who found that farmers reported applying three times more phosphorus in chicken manure on their fields in 2012 than their crops needed. In conjunction with this report, CPR issued a map showing excessive soil phosphorus levels at all but one of 60 large poultry farms in the six Eastern Shore counties.
Responding to public information requests is a vital part of the agency’s job, but so is writing permits and conducting inspections. So much time and money could have been saved on everyone’s part if the reports had been submitted electronically in the first place. That’s exactly what the eReporting rule promises to do.
Talk about a no-brainer.
The EPA estimates that states will save up to $28.7 million annually because agency staff will spend significantly less time processing paper submissions and correcting data input errors. The rule would free up much-needed resources, allowing states to take critical enforcement actions, which have fallen in recent years due to budget cuts.
The public comment period for the supplemental notice continues until January 30, 2015, and the EPA will schedule webinars with regions, states and industry. The agency expects to issue a final rule by August 2015. Considering the long delays that have already taken place, the Administration should—at a minimum—stick to this schedule to ensure that this common-sense rule is completed well before President Obama leaves office.