Environmental Protection:

Wider Use of Advanced Technologies Can Improve Emissions Monitoring

GAO-01-313: Published: Jun 22, 2001. Publicly Released: Jul 23, 2001.

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To protect human health and safeguard the environment,the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates pollution generated by sewage treatment plants, power generation plants, chemical manufacturers, and pulp and paper mills. Monitoring is a key component of these efforts. Many of the technologies that are now being used to monitor environmental conditions have been in existence for decades. In recent years, however, several technologies have become available that may offer improved measurement and performance capabilities. This report (1) identifies technologies whose wider use can improve the monitoring of pollutants entering the nation's air and water, (2) determines the extent to which these improved technologies are being used and steps that EPA can take to promote their wider use, and (3) identifies factors that influence the development of new technologies and steps that EPA can take to encourage greater development of new technologies. GAO found that several monitoring technologies exist that can better measure emissions or discharges from stationary air sources, wastewater sources, and nonpoint water sources. These technologies offer advantages over older, more commonly used methods by detecting pollutants at lower levels, reducing monitoring costs, and increasing the reliability of monitoring results. GAO also found that the primary barriers preventing wider use of these technologies differ considerably across stationary air, wastewater, and nonpoint water sources. Regulated entities may be reluctant to voluntarily use air emissions monitoring technology because of concerns that the new technology will reveal instances of noncompliance and will result in punitive action. Wastewater dischargers are not allowed to use the advanced technologies because EPA has yet to approve them for Clean Water Act compliance monitoring. Entities responsible for nonpoint water sources have been discouraged from using the technologies because of cost concerns. GAO found that equipment manufacturers tend to develop new technologies only when there are strong prospects for a return on their investment. Without regulatory requirements, manufacturers have little incentive to bring new technologies to market. In the absence of private investment, EPA and other agencies have sponsored some research in this area, but EPA has limited resources, and research done by other agencies does not always provide results that are acceptable for regulatory purposes.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's Office of Water partially adopted the recommendation by tracking the results of its approvals of water monitoring methods, including an informal assessment of the effects of funding shortages on the timeliness of its reviews.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the applications for minor modifications or limited use methods continue to receive timely review, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Water to track the results of its review and approval of these applications over the course of the coming year. The Office should compare these results to those of recent years to determine the impact of fiscal year 2001 funding reductions on the timeliness of its reviews. If the agency determines that funding reductions have had a significantly negative impact, it should consider restoring the funding or taking other measures to compensate for the loss of such funding.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The office of Air and Radiation is evaluating how the use of advanced monitoring impacts emissions by collecting and analyzing data from several state programs. In addition, it has met with stakeholders to identify incentives (i.e., economic benefits) attractive to industry and ways to minimize barriers (e.g., reduced reporting burden) in return for source owners voluntarily applying advanced monitoring technologies.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the agency's Office of Air and Radiation to develop a strategy that would address the barriers that impede wider use of advanced monitoring technologies. As a part of this strategy, EPA should undertake an analysis of the costs and benefits associated with different compliance monitoring options in a manner that would help to identify additional opportunities for the expanded use of advanced monitoring technologies.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has substantially implemented this recommendation. Its Offices of Enforcement and of Air and Radiation have worked with companies to test experimental mercury continuous emissions monitors. In doing so, they have agreed with participating companies to grant them a "No Action Assurance" to encourage their use of the technology. Such an assurance guarantees to the company that enforcement officials will not take any enforcement action against it based on the study data. EPA maintains that such "confidence building" with industry will help to reassure participants that the Enforcement office operates in good faith in the fair application of the Credible Evidence Rule.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the agency's Office of Air and Radiation to develop a strategy that would address the barriers that impede wider use of advanced monitoring technologies. As a part of this strategy, EPA should identify ways to alleviate the widespread view among emitters that it will use the Credible Evidence rule in enforcement cases where voluntary use of such technologies may reveal minor violations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA partially addressed the recommendation by posting information on certain monitoring technologies on its web page. In September 2002, EPA officials said they did not plan to take further action.

    Recommendation: To improve the sharing of information and reduce duplication, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Water to develop a clearinghouse and/or locator for monitoring technologies and assessment techniques that are used for assessing pollutant contributions from nonpoint sources and developing total maximum daily loads. Such a clearinghouse should include (1) a mechanism whereby users could obtain and update information regularly and easily and (2) information provided by EPA and the other federal agencies that collect and analyze water quality conditions.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has partially implemented the recommendation by holding meetings with stakeholders from several program offices to resolve differences and plan revisions to the Office of Water's performance-based measurement system implementation plan.

    Recommendation: To encourage the development of new or significantly improved test methods for use in wastewater monitoring, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of Water and the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to work together to resolve remaining differences over the use of a performance-based measurement system in wastewater monitoring, and to move forward with implementation of the agreed-upon system.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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