Environmental Protection:

EPA's and States' Efforts to Focus State Enforcement Programs on Results

RCED-98-113: Published: May 27, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed: (1) alternative strategies states are practicing to improve compliance with environmental laws and regulations; (2) whether and how states are measuring the effectiveness of these strategies; and (3) how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has responded to these states' efforts, focusing in particular on the agency's objective of holding the states accountable for achieving environmental results, rather than focusing solely on enforcement processes.

GAO noted that: (1) approaches used by 10 states contacted by GAO that are experimenting with alternative compliance strategies generally fall into two categories: (a) compliance assistance programs that seek to help dischargers comply with environmental requirements; and (b) programs that promote more flexible enforcement than is practiced under the current system; (2) most of the 10 states had developed some kind of compliance assistance program, which generally targets smaller facilities or businesses that may not understand the requirements or the most effective ways of achieving them; (3) nine of 10 states had some type of audit privilege/immunity program, four of which were authorized by the states' statutes; (4) there was broad agreement among the state and EPA officials contacted that the effectiveness of alternative compliance strategies should be measured and assessed; (5) nonetheless, states' efforts to measure the effectiveness of alternative compliance strategies have proven to be much more difficult than counting and reporting traditional enforcement outputs; (6) key challenges to developing results-oriented performance measures include the: (a) frequent absence of the baseline data needed to determine whether compliance rates or environmental quality have improved under new strategies; and (b) inherently greater difficulty and expense involved in quantifying outcomes, as compared with counting and reporting output measures; (7) since 1994, EPA has initiated a number of activities to facilitate states' efforts; (8) the agency has maintained a continued emphasis on strong enforcement, noting that the deterrent effect achieved through enforcement actions motivates regulated entities to seek compliance assistance and use incentive policies; (9) differences between EPA and state regulatory authorities were exacerbated by inconsistent approaches by different EPA offices on how the adequacy of state enforcement programs should be assessed; and (10) EPA could more effectively help states deal with some of the technical barriers impeding their efforts to develop measures needed to implement results-oriented enforcement strategies.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should ensure that the development of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance's (OECA) Performance Profile stays on the schedule outlined in its National Performance Measures Strategy; that the Profile be developed collaboratively with interested states in a manner that helps these states meet their own performance measurement needs; and that OECA periodically disseminates information (as it becomes available) among the states on effective practices in measuring enforcement programs' results.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA has formed workgroups of headquarters and regional staff to address key problems in developing results-oriented measures, and obtained contractor support to provide expertise and statistical analysis. The agency has also initiated efforts to engage interested states in pilot projects so that their efforts to improve performance measurement benefit the states as well. In March 1999, EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance said that it was making funds available for cooperative agreements to enhance states' abilities to engage in outcome-based compliance measurement.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should promote greater consistency in what has been a fragmented and inconsistent message by different EPA offices on the appropriate balance in EPA's enforcement program between enforcement and compliance assurance activities. In doing so, the Administrator should build on EPA's recent efforts to address this issue by ensuring that: (1) the expectations set for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, program offices, and other EPA headquarters and regional offices are consistent with the agency's policy calling for an appropriate mix of tools to achieve compliance; (2) different EPA offices with enforcement responsibility more systematically coordinate their negotiations with, and oversight of, state agencies on enforcement-related matters; and (3) the enforcement-related provisions of EPA's Performance Plan, prepared pursuant to the Government Performance and Results Act, focus on outcomes in a manner consistent with that of the core performance measures developed under EPA's National Performance Measures Strategy, the National Environmental Performance Partnership System, and the agency's other results-oriented initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Senior management of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance have met with staff in all ten EPA regions and with senior Office managers to stress that internal coordination is a priority. To promote consistency in the national enforcement and compliance assurance program, the Office completed a guidance document in April 1999 that defines the goals, priorities and appropriate mix of tools and activities for the FY 2000/2001 national program. The document is intended as the basis for developing agreements between the Office and individual EPA regional offices. Also, the Office also added outcome-oriented measures to its FY 2000 Annual Performance Plan. Specifically, whereas measures in the previous plan had focused exclusively on outputs such as the numbers of inspections conducted and enforcement actions taken, the latest plan also includes the use of statistically valid noncompliance rates for selected environmental problems or selected sectors (an outcome measure).

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