Clean Water Act:

Longstanding Issues Impact EPA's and States' Enforcement Efforts

GAO-10-165T: Published: Oct 15, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 15, 2009.

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Congress enacted the Clean Water Act to help reduce water pollution and improve the health of the nation's waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administers its enforcement responsibilities under the act through its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), as well as its 10 regional offices and the states. Over the last 9 years, GAO has undertaken a number of reviews of EPA's environmental enforcement activities, including for the Clean Water Act. For this testimony statement, GAO was asked to summarize the results of five prior reports on the effectiveness of EPA's enforcement program. Specifically, this statement includes information on the (1) factors that cause variations in enforcement activities and lead to inconsistencies across regions, (2) impact that inadequate resources and work force planning has had on enforcement, (3) efforts EPA has taken to improve priority planning, and (4) accuracy and transparency of measures of program effectiveness. GAO's prior recommendations have included the need for EPA to collect more complete and reliable data, develop improved guidance, and better performance measures. Although EPA has generally agreed with these recommendations, its implementation has been uneven. GAO is not making new recommendations in this statement.

In 2000, GAO found variations among EPA's regional offices in the actions they take to enforce environmental requirements. For example, the regions varied in the inspection coverage of facilities discharging pollutants, the number and type of enforcement actions taken, and the size of the penalties assessed and the criteria used in determining penalties. GAO also found that variations in the regions' strategies for overseeing state programs may have resulted in more in-depth reviews in some regional programs than in others. Several factors contributed to these variations including differences in the philosophical approaches among enforcement staff about how best to achieve compliance with environmental requirements, differences in state laws and enforcement authorities and how the regions respond to these differences, variations in resources available to state and regional offices, the flexibility afforded by EPA policies and guidance that allow latitude in state enforcement programs, and incomplete and inadequate enforcement data that hampered EPA's ability to accurately characterize the extent of variations. In 2007, GAO reported improvements in EPA's oversight of state enforcement activities with the implementation of a state review framework. However, while this framework helped identify several weaknesses in state programs, the agency had not developed a plan for how it would uniformly address these weaknesses or identify the root causes of these weaknesses. In 2005, GAO reported that the scope of EPA's responsibilities under the Clean Water Act along with workload associated with implementing and enforcing the act's requirements had increased significantly. At the same time, EPA had authorized states to take on more responsibilities, shifting the agency's workload from direct implementation to oversight. In 2007, GAO reported that while overall funding for enforcement activities had increased from $288 million in fiscal year 1997 to $322 million in fiscal year 2006, resources had not kept pace with inflation or the increased responsibilities. Both EPA and state officials told GAO that they found it difficult to respond to new requirements while carrying out previous responsibilities and regional offices had reduced enforcement staff by about 5 percent. In 2005, GAO also reported that EPA's process for budgeting and allocating resources did not fully consider the agency's workload, either for specific statutory requirements such as those included in the Clean Water Act or the broader goals and objectives in the agency's strategic plan. Any efforts made by the agency to develop a more systematic process would be hampered by the lack of comprehensive and accurate workload data. In 2007, GAO reported that EPA had made substantial progress in improving priority setting and enforcement planning with states through its system for setting national enforcement priorities and this had fostered a more cooperative relationship with the states. Finally, in 2008, GAO reported that EPA could improve the accuracy and transparency of some of the measures that it uses to assess and report on the effectiveness of its civil and criminal enforcement programs. GAO identified shortcomings in how EPA calculates and reports these data that may prevent the agency from providing Congress and the public with a fair assessment of the programs.

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