This article presents the testimony before the Committee on the Environment and Public Works in the U.S. Senate about the EPA's effort to improve and make more consistent it's compliance and enforcement activities.
Why GAO Did This Study
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces the nation’s environmental laws and regulations through its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). While OECA provides overall direction on enforcement policies and occasionally takes direct enforcement action, many enforcement responsibilities are carried out by EPA’s 10 regional offices. In addition, these offices oversee the enforcement programs of state agencies that have been delegated the authority to enforce federal environmental protection regulations.
This testimony is based on GAO’s reports on EPA’s enforcement activities issued over the past several years and on observations from ongoing work that is being performed at the request of this Committee and the Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, House Committee on Appropriations. GAO’s previous reports examined the (1) consistency among EPA regions in carrying out enforcement activities, (2) factors that contribute to any inconsistency, and (3) EPA’s actions to address these factors. Our current work examines how EPA, in consultation with regions and states, sets priorities for compliance and enforcement and how the agency and states determine respective compliance and enforcement roles and responsibilities and allocate resources for these purposes.
What GAO Found
EPA regions vary substantially in the actions they take to enforce environmental requirements, according to GAO’s analysis of key management indicators that EPA headquarters uses to monitor regional performance. These indicators include the number of inspections performed at regulated facilities and the amount of penalties assessed for noncompliance with environmental regulations. In addition, the regions differ substantially in their overall strategies to oversee states within their jurisdictions. For example, contrary to EPA policy, some regions did not require states to report all significant violators, while other regions adhered to EPA’s policy in this regard.
GAO identified several factors that contribute to regional variations in enforcement. These factors include (1) differences in philosophy among regional enforcement staff about how best to secure compliance with environmental requirements; (2) incomplete and unreliable enforcement data that impede EPA’s ability to accurately determine the extent to which variations occur; and (3) an antiquated workforce planning and allocation system that is not adequate for deploying staff in a manner to ensure consistency and effectiveness in enforcing environmental requirements.
EPA recognizes that while some variation in environmental enforcement is necessary to reflect local conditions, core enforcement requirements must be consistently implemented to ensure fairness and equitable treatment. Consequently, similar violations should be met with similar enforcement responses regardless of geographic location. In response to GAO findings and recommendations, EPA has initiated or planned several long-term actions that are intended to achieve greater consistency in state and regional enforcement actions. These include (1) a new State Review Framework process for measuring states’ performance of core enforcement activities, (2) a number of initiatives to improve the agency’s compliance and enforcement data, and (3) enhancements to the agency’s workforce planning and allocation system to improve the agency’s ability to match its staff and technical capabilities with the needs of individual regions. However, these actions have yet to achieve significant results and will likely require a number of years and a steady top-level commitment of staff and financial resources to substantially improve EPA’s ability to target enforcement actions in a consistent and equitable manner.