The EPA’s reduction in enforcement activity during the coronavirus puts the agency’s regulatory mission at risk, the agency’s internal watchdog said on Wednesday.
That finding cuts against the Environmental Protection Agency’s message that the agency is continuing to do robust enforcement. Earlier this month, nine states urged a New York federal court to block the EPA from using a light touch on environmental enforcement during the pandemic.
The EPA announced March 26 it would stop seeking penalties from those not performing routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification activities if they’re unable to do so because of the pandemic.
But the EPA’s Office of Inspector General said that “additional reduction in enforcement activity places the EPA’s regulatory mission at greater risk and threatens the Agency’s overall mission to protect human health and the environment.”
Exacerbating matters is the fact that the EPA’s enforcement has already been tailing off, the inspector general said. In March, the office issued a report finding that the agency conducted 33% fewer inspections in fiscal 2018 than in fiscal 2007.
In response, an EPA spokeswoman said the agency has “continued its unrelenting commitment to protecting human health and the environment” during an unprecedent time in the nation’s history.
“It is unfortunate that the IG is choosing to make uninformed comments that denigrate the great work that EPA staff has continued to carry out during the public health emergency,” the spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman also said that, contrary to the OIG’s statement, the EPA’s temporary enforcement policy doesn’t curtail regulatory monitoring and enforcement activities. Rather, the policy “addresses situations where noncompliance is unavoidable as a result of steps taken to curtail the transmission and spread of Covid-19,” she said.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler also defended the EPA’s policy in a May 20 hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“No one, anywhere in this country, is allowed to increase their emissions under our enforcement discretion,” Wheeler told lawmakers.
From March 16 to June 5, the EPA has opened 78 criminal enforcement cases, charged 24 defendants, concluded 235 civil enforcement actions, initiated 215 civil enforcement actions, secured $25.4 million in Superfund response commitments, billed more than $23 million in Superfund oversight costs, and secured commitments for the cleanup of 107,673 cubic yards of contaminated soil and water, the EPA said.
The two-page report also pointed to organizational risks at the EPA that the pandemic is making worse.
Unprecedented levels of telecommuting raises the risk of security breaches of EPA data, the report found, and the agency’s information technology staff is “overtaxed” in supporting staff working from home.
Further, the EPA must deal with the challenge of cleaning more than 150 federal offices and maintaining social distancing when workers return. But the agency hasn’t gotten an increase in budget or full-time staff to help meet these challenges, the OIG said.
Several EPA offices have already moved into the early stages of a phased reopening. The agency has said it’s taking a slow, careful approach, and is encouraging staff to keep telecommuting until an office reaches the final phase of the White House’s three-step reopening plan.
The EPA also may also have a growing problem in warning the public about environmental and health risks, as facilities such as medical sterilization companies rush to respond to the pandemic, according to the inspector general.
In March, the office said the agency had failed to warn residents who live near plants that emit significant amounts of the carcinogenic gas ethylene oxide about the potential dangers to their health. Ethylene oxide is a flammable, colorless gas used to sterilize medical equipment.
In response to the March report, Wheeler said agency staff had already met with affected communities and proposed a rule (RIN: 2060-AT85) to limit ethylene oxide emissions from chemical plants.