Environmental Protection:

More Consistency Needed Among EPA Regions in Approach to Enforcement

RCED-00-108: Published: Jun 1, 2000. Publicly Released: Jul 5, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the consistency of the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) regional offices' enforcement of environmental requirements, focusing on: (1) the extent to which variations exist among EPA's regional offices in the actions they take to enforce environmental requirements; (2) what factors contribute to any variations; and (3) what EPA is doing to achieve consistency in regional enforcement activities.

GAO noted that: (1) variations exist among EPA's regional offices in the actions they take to enforce environmental requirements, as illustrated by a number of key indicators that EPA headquarters enforcement officials have used to monitor regional performance; (2) GAO also found variations in regions' overall strategies in overseeing the states within their jurisdiction, which may result in more in-depth reviews in some regional programs than in others; (3) EPA headquarters enforcement officials emphasize that the data, by themselves, do not offer the appropriate context to help determine the extent to which the variations pose problems; (4) the officials note, however, that the data are useful for identifying general trends and possible strengths and weaknesses in regional and state programs, along with potential issues to investigate at greater length; (5) also corroborating the variation it identified among regional enforcement activities, GAO found broad agreement in its interviews with EPA and state enforcement officials on key factors that contribute to such variations; (6) among the factors most commonly cited by these officials are: (a) differences in the philosophical approaches among enforcement staff about how to best achieve compliance with environmental requirements; (b) differences in state laws and enforcement authorities, and in the manner in which regions respond to these differences; (c) variations in resources available to both state and regional enforcement offices; (d) the flexibility afforded by EPA policies and guidance that allow states a degree of latitude in their enforcement programs; and (e) incomplete and inadequate enforcement data which hamper EPA's ability to accurately characterize the extent of variations; (7) EPA headquarters and regional enforcement officials have a number of efforts underway to help achieve greater consistency in regional enforcement activities; (8) at the headquarters level, enforcement officials are developing performance information that will allow for comparisons among both regions and states in their conduct of key enforcement responsibilities; (9) a number of EPA regional offices have also sought to ensure more consistency in their state oversight by developing and applying new audit protocols in their state reviews and by encouraging more effective communication between and among regional and state enforcement staff; and (10) however, a number of factors will continue to challenge EPA's ability to ensure consistent regional enforcement, including the absence of reliable data on how both states and regions are performing their enforcement responsibilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In distributing the Program Status Reports in June 2000, EPA included the kind of contextual information suggested by the recommendation explaining the appropriate use and interpretation of the information by those evaluating regional and state performance.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should provide, as part of EPA's efforts to develop Program Status Reports containing comparative data on regional and state enforcement performance, the contextual information needed to help EPA management and the public properly understand them.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The report recommended that EPA "develop a comprehensive strategy that will bring to bear sufficient priority and resources so that the problems affecting the quality of EPA's enforcement data can be adequately addressed." Development of the data quality strategy is presently underway. The agency has already addressed the resource issue as stated in the recommendation by completing in November 2000 a reassignment process in which staff were assigned to data quality management.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should develop a comprehensive strategy that will bring to bear sufficient priority and resources so that the problems affecting the quality of EPA's enforcement data can be adequately addressed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the time of this recommendation, EPA has begun to use oversight tools called "Program Element Reviews" to target their enforcement oversight for individual programs. In doing so, the agency has developed a protocol for the Program Element Reviews that sets out standards and specific questions to be answered in the review of the state enforcement programs. The result is expected to be a "reasonably standardized state review conducted by each EPA region."

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should issue guidance to EPA regions describing the required elements of audit protocols to be used in overseeing state enforcement programs.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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