EPA Enforcement Activities: An Update on What’s Happening

June 02, 2020

In the past 12 years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has seen a decline in all of its enforcement activities. Here are the key figures:

  • EPA Inspections decreased by 33%
  • Enforcement Cases Initiated decreased by 52%
  • Enforcement Cases Concluded decreased by 51%
  • Enforcement Cases with Injunctive Relief decreased by 58%
  • Enforcement Action with Penalties decreased by 53%
  • Supplemental Environmental Projects decreased by 48%

Such are the findings of a recently published audit of the EPA by the Office of Inspector General (OIG). The OIG sought to identify trends in EPA-led enforcement actions from fiscal years 2006 through 2018 and the key factors explaining those trends.

Funding for the EPA’s enforcement program and the number of enforcement staff also decreased, by 18% and 21% respectively, when comparing FYs 2006 and 2018.

To be fair, FY 2006 was a unique year for several reasons. First, it was an unusually high year for cases (5,989 cases), as that was the year that EPA enforcement efforts focused on air emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations.

It was also the year that the EPA concluded a historic number of enforcement actions.

These two factors would appear to exaggerate the overall decline in enforcement activities and results.

However, the report also states that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that while the EPA collected data on formal enforcement activities, it did not consistently collect data about compliance assistance and informal enforcement activities for its national databases.

In addition, the GAO found that several of the EPA’s FY 2018 enforcement-related reports did not disclose known limitations about the Agency’s enforcement data. Without this information, readers of the EPA’s annual reports risked drawing inaccurate conclusions or information from the data.

Enforcement activities, actions, and results also declined from fiscal years 2018 to 2019, but there was one exception: pollution commitments. The EPA concluded 3% more enforcement actions that included pollution commitments than in FY 2018. Also, concluded enforcement actions in FY 2019 resulted in 347 million pounds of pollution commitments, 19% more than in FY 2018.

Reasons for the Decline

The reasons and impacts behind this enforcement decline are not spelled out in this publication, but will be provided in the second part of the report, due out later this year.

It could be that much of the decline is because many companies brought their practices into compliance during this time.

For example, William C. Schillaci writes in an EHS Daily Advisor article, “….the value of environmental benefit commitments violators made under the enforcement/compliance program to reduce, treat, or eliminate pollutants decreased by 64% when comparing fiscal years (FYs) 2012 and 2018. These benefits are calculated in terms of the number of pounds of pollutants generated and waste treated because entities corrected noncompliance.”

Enforcement decline could also be due to the fact that the federal government is asking individual states and tribes to pursue more of the enforcement activity surrounding local environmental laws.

The EPA responded to the OIG by saying that the government report failed “to note that our enforcement and compliance program focuses on achieving compliance using many tools, not limited to the number of individual enforcement actions taken.”

No matter the reason, environmental compliance is still an essential business practice and will continue to be monitored and enforced by either the federal or state agencies.

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Laurie Toupin