EPA and the States:

Environmental Challenges Require a Better Working Relationship

RCED-95-64: Published: Apr 3, 1995. Publicly Released: May 8, 1995.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the difficulties that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states have in implementing federal environmental protection requirements, focusing on the: (1) reasons for these difficulties; and (2) ways EPA and the states can improve their ability to carry out the requirements.

GAO found that: (1) most states have had difficulty in implementing federal environmental programs and have become reluctant to accept the additional responsibilities associated with environmental laws; (2) resource limitations are a major cause of the states' problems, as federal funding has not kept pace with environmental requirements; (3) EPA has required states to apply scarce resources to national priorities at the expense of their own environmental concerns; (4) the relationship between EPA and the states has been strained because EPA does not provide adequate technical support to states and does not consult states before making decisions concerning them; and (5) although EPA has taken measures over the past 10 years to improve its relationship with the states, key issues still remain unresolved.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's oversight reform package includes an environmental performance agreement that is based on a joint planning and priority-setting dialogue between EPA and individual states. EPA began this agreement, the National Environmental Performance Partnership System (NEPPS), in May 1995 and has negotiated individual agreements with most states. Similar activities take place with other states.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct its program offices to periodically work with the states--within the limitations of existing environmental laws--to identify how each state's limited funds can be most efficiently and effectively allocated within each program to address the states' highest-priority environmental problems.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As part of the NEPPS process, EPA is considering how best to adjust oversight practices to ensure acceptable levels of consistency while accounting for individual state differences.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct its program offices to determine the extent to which variations in state standards, enforcement procedures, and other key functions reflect the appropriate exercise of flexibility authorized by law or are inappropriate and warrant corrective measures. Where inappropriate inconsistencies are deemed to exist, the Administrator should direct the program offices to issue guidance to the regions (or use other mechanisms) to ensure the fair and consistent implementation of national requirements.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The concepts of differential oversight and the use of environmental indicators are central to a number of EPA oversight reform actions. The NEPPS includes joint planning and priority setting, increased use of environmental goals and indicators, and oversight tailored to state performance. EPA has taken action to develop and refine environmental indicators, which will be central to differential oversight.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct its regions to periodically negotiate, with each state, a level of oversight that takes into account the ability of the state to fulfill its environmental program obligations (e.g., its track record in meeting key program requirements or its staffing and funding for meeting future requirements). As a general rule, however, the Administrator should encourage regional oversight to focus on achieving improvements in environmental quality--as measured by reliable environmental indicators--without prescribing in detail how the states are to achieve these results.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Among the initiatives in which EPA has sought to improve communications by increasing state participation are the Common Sense Initiative and the Environmental Leadership Program. The hallmark of NEPPS is more and better communications with the states, and improved state participation in policy making. More frequent conference calls and meetings with state leaders to discuss major issues have also been made.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct its program and regional offices to: (1) consult the states as early as possible on key issues before important policy decisions are made; and (2) use their unique position vis-a-vis state environmental agencies to facilitate the sharing of information on issues of interest and concern (e.g., innovative approaches to deal with common problems) among these agencies.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Regional Operations, State/Local Relations coordinates and monitors the agency's efforts to implement NEPPS. EPA has established internal mechanisms at the senior management and staff levels to ensure coordination.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Office of State and Local Relations (or other office deemed appropriate) to track and periodically report to the Administrator on EPA and the states' progress in addressing the recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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