Environmental Protection:

EPA-State Enforcement Partnership Has Improved, but EPA's Oversight Needs Further Enhancement

GAO-07-883: Published: Jul 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2007.

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforces the nation's environmental laws through its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA). OECA sets overall enforcement policies and through its 10 regions oversees state agencies authorized to implement environmental programs consistent with federal requirements. GAO was asked to (1) identify trends in federal resources to regions and states for enforcement between 1997 and 2006, and determine regions' and states' views on the adequacy of these resources; (2) determine EPA's progress in improving priority setting and enforcement planning with states; and (3) examine EPA's efforts to improve oversight of states' enforcement programs and identify additional actions EPA could take to ensure more consistent state performance and oversight. GAO examined information from all 10 regions and 10 authorized states, among other things.

Overall funding to regions and authorized states increased from 1997 through 2006, but these increases did not keep pace with inflation and the growth in enforcement responsibilities. Over the 10-year period, EPA's enforcement funding to the regions decreased 8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Regional officials said they reduced the number of enforcement staff by about 5 percent. EPA's grants to states to implement federal environmental programs also declined by 9 percent in inflation-adjusted terms while enforcement and other environmental program responsibilities increased. According to state officials, reductions in grant funds have limited their ability to meet EPA's requests to implement new requirements. For example, according to New York State officials responsible for the hazardous waste program, a reduction in EPA grants between 1997 and 2006 has meant a 38 percent reduction in the full-time state staff supported by federal funding for this program. However, EPA information on the workload and staffing needs of its regions and the states is incomplete, and, thus, it is not possible with existing data to determine their overall capacity to meet their enforcement responsibilities. EPA has made substantial progress in improving priority setting and enforcement planning with states through its system for setting national enforcement priorities and the EPA/state National Environmental Partnership System (NEPPS), which have fostered a more cooperative relationship. For example, on states' recommendation, OECA accepted as a priority ensuring that facilities handling hazardous substances, such as lead or mercury, have the financial resources to close their facilities, clean up contamination, and compensate communities and individuals affected by the contamination. EPA and states have also made some progress in using NEPPS for joint planning and resource allocation. State participation in the partnership grew from 6 pilot states in fiscal year 1996 to 41 states in fiscal year 2006. EPA has improved its oversight of state enforcement programs by implementing the State Review Framework (SRF) as a means to perform a consistent approach for overseeing the programs. Moreover, EPA can make additional progress by addressing weaknesses that the SRF reviews identified and by implementing other improvements to ensure oversight that is more consistent. For example, the SRF reviews show that EPA has limited ability to determine whether the states are performing timely, appropriate enforcement and whether penalties are applied to environmental violators in a fair and consistent manner within and among the states. In addition, GAO noted that EPA could make further use of the SRF to (1) determine the root causes of poorly performing programs; (2) inform the public about how well the states are implementing their enforcement responsibilities; and (3) extend the use of the SRF methodology to assess the performance of EPA's regions, which have been inconsistent in their enforcement and oversight efforts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2009, EPA published on its website the State Review Framework (SRF) reports and data on enforcement performance for all 54 states and territories, including those states and territories where EPA directly implements the programs. EPA has also implemented web-based tools to help the public search, assess, and analyze the enforcement data that EPA used to prepare the SRF reports.

    Recommendation: To enhance EPA's oversight of regional and state enforcement activities to implement environmental programs consistent with the requirements of federal statutes and regulations, the Administrator of EPA should publish the SRF findings so that the public will know how well state regulators are enforcing authorized programs and protecting public health and the environmental conditions in their communities.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has taken action to define state performance problems with implementation of compliance and enforcement programs. These actions include an evaluation of the capacity of individual authorized state programs, recommendations for addressing identified performance problems, and associated time frames for state programs to complete corrective actions. EPA publishes it's findings, recommendations, and state corrective actions in its online database.

    Recommendation: To enhance EPA's oversight of regional and state enforcement activities to implement environmental programs consistent with the requirements of federal statutes and regulations, the Administrator of EPA should evaluate the capacity of individual authorized state programs, where the SRF finds the state appears to lack sufficient resources (e.g., funding, staff, and expertise), to implement and enforce authorized programs and then develop an action plan to improve that state's capacity.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In FY 2008, EPA completed an assessment of lessons learned from its State Review Framework(SRF)reviews. EPA's assessment identified important national issues, including significant non-compliance with water permitting requirements and an unacceptably low level of enforcement activity. As a result, in July 2009, the EPA Administrator directed the Office of Water to develop an action plan to strengthen EPA and state enforcement performance and to further enhance public transparency regarding compliance and enforcement activities. In October 2009, EPA issued its Clean Water Act Enforcement Action Plan.

    Recommendation: To enhance EPA's oversight of regional and state enforcement activities to implement environmental programs consistent with the requirements of federal statutes and regulations, the Administrator of EPA should include, in EPA's fiscal year 2008 evaluation of the SRF, an assessment of lessons learned and an action plan for determining how significant problems identified in state programs will be uniformly and expeditiously addressed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA has begun using the State Review Framework (SRF) to evaluate regional enforcement programs in six of ten regions that directly implement one or more programs not delegated to the states. However, EPA has not implemented a comprehensive, SRF-type review of the ten regional enforcement programs to address substantial inconsistencies among the regions in enforcement actions and state oversight, as GAO intended with the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance EPA's oversight of regional and state enforcement activities to implement environmental programs consistent with the requirements of federal statutes and regulations, the Administrator of EPA should conduct a performance assessment similar to SRF for regional enforcement programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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