Water Pollution:

Many Violations Have Not Received Appropriate Enforcement Attention

RCED-96-23: Published: Mar 20, 1996. Publicly Released: Mar 29, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) progress in ensuring that facilities comply with federal pollutant discharge requirements, focusing on: (1) the frequency of facilities' violations; (2) the limitations of EPA systems and the effects of these limitations; and (3) EPA plans to correct these facilities.

GAO found that EPA: (1) compliance data for FY 1994 show that 1 in 6 of the nation's 7,053 major regulated facilities have significantly violated the discharge limits in their permits; (2) considers facilities to be in significant noncompliance of their discharge levels when discharged pollutants exceed permit limits by 20 percent or more in a 2- to 6-month period; (3) is unable to identify all of the facilities that violate their discharge limits because the criteria it uses to screen facilities have not remained consistent with the types of discharge limits used in permits; (4) has expanded its criteria for identifying cases of significant noncompliance and assigning priorities of enforcement action in order to identify major facilities that have violated discharge levels in the past; and (5) assessed penalties of about $25 million in 323 cases of Clean Water Act violations in 1994, and its studies indicate that very few penalties are assessed for significant violations of daily maximum discharge limits.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA's regional water enforcement managers have been instructed to ensure that penalties for violations of different types of discharge limits are equitable and comparable. Although this can be achieved using the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance's (OECA) existing penalty policy, OECA believes that additional guidance would be helpful and plans to issue such guidance.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should revise the assessment of penalties for violations of the Clean Water Act to ensure that the penalties for significant and comparable violations of different types of discharge limits are equitable. In developing the changes, the Administrator should consider the economic benefits gained from noncompliance, the severity of the violations, the permittee's previous compliance record, and the deterrent effect of the penalty.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


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