EPA's Enforcement Retreat will Harm the Chesapeake

by Anne Havemann

February 04, 2014

Every day, we are presented with more evidence of the need to inspect for environmental violations and enforce the nation’s laws.  The evidence is stark in the Chesapeake Bay region where, in 2012 alone, just 17 large point sources reported illegal discharges of nitrogen totaling nearly 700,000 pounds.  These violations put the watershed states behind in their efforts to restore the estuary and meet the 2025 goals of the Bay pollution diet. 

The problem cries out for stronger enforcement of environmental laws, and yet EPA recently released a draft FY 2014–2018 Strategic Plan that signals that the agency will retreat significantly from traditional enforcement in the coming years.  Specifically, EPA aims to conduct 30 percent fewer inspections and file 40 percent fewer civil cases over the next five years as compared to the last five.

CPR’s newest Issue Alert, which I co-authored with CPR President Rena Steinzor and Member Scholar Rob Gicksman, argues that traditional enforcement should be the last function the agency should cut because it is the most cost-effective weapon to prevent backsliding on the progress the nation has made in reducing traditional pollution.

Instead of traditional enforcement, the agency’s plan embraces a new enforcement paradigm called “Next Generation Compliance.”  NextGen relies on self-monitoring and reporting by polluters, aims to make regulations “easier” for them to comply with, and replaces the way EPA measures the effectiveness of its enforcement activities with untested methods.

The Issue Alert finds that EPA’s new enforcement scheme has at least four specific shortcomings:

  1. It relies on industry to police itself, an untested and unproven approach that on its face invites noncompliance;
  2. It signals a clear rollback in traditional deterrence-based enforcement, a tested and proven approach;
  3. It seeks to mask the plain harm to public health and environmental protection of congressional budget cuts with breezy, even risible assertions of improved enforcement; and
  4. Its retreat from enforcement and related budget cuts could irreparably delay the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and other natural treasures.

This retreat from enforcement could severely undercut regulated entities’ commitment to meet their responsibilities, exposing the public to unacceptable health and environmental risks.  Enforcement should be the last function to suffer from inadequate budgetary allocations.

You can read a summary of the report here.


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Also from Anne Havemann

Anne Havemann, J.D., is a former CPR Policy Analyst. She joined the organization in 2013 to work on its Chesapeake Bay program area, and left in 2015 to join the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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