Collecting information is critical to many of EPA’s tasks, especially those that ensure polluters are complying with the law and, for purposes of assuring compliance or of enforcement, detecting sources that are not. EPA’s ten regional offices, acting on their own authority, are instrumental in this type of information collection. This process has been slowed, and potentially fouled, by a new directive requiring all Agency requests for information from polluters, including those initiated by the Regions, to be cleared by headquarters.
EPA’s ability to collect information underlies its ability to investigate and detect whether individual sources are meeting their legal obligations to curb water, air, waste, and toxic pollution. Direct engagement with polluters simplifies the process of assuring their compliance, or of taking enforcement actions against sources releasing illegal levels of pollution. The expectation that the EPA is able to gather needed information underpins polluters’ commitments and incentives to comply with their pollution control requirements.
Under previous administrations, the EPA staff in the field, operating in 10 regional offices and subsidiary field offices around the country, were authorized to request information as part of their frontline responsibility for identifying environmental non-compliance and even environmental crimes associated with illegal levels of pollution and waste-dumping, and enforcing environmental laws. The effectiveness of this information-gathering network was enhanced by the offices’ and staffs’ being on the ground in states and communities and having the authority to act on their own when facts emerged that warranted further information collection.
Administrator Pruitt now requires all EPA personnel to clear each information request through headquarters. The immediate effect of this directive is delay as well as inefficiency, since requests must now go through an additional layer of review by headquarters employees, operating hundreds or even thousands of miles away from sites subject to information requests, with less knowledge of the facts underlying the requests than that of their regional counterparts.
Moreover, nothing in the Pruitt directive provides assurances that headquarters’ review of information requests will be insulated from the kind of political influence from which EPA’s compliance and enforcement activities have been rigorously shielded in the past. This concern is heightened by the fact that the agency’s current political team, which has been ambivalent on enforcement, can be expected to be “watching” the review process, at the very least. This policy appears to have already led to fewer requests for information and slower enforcement actions. Already, the Pruitt EPA is underperforming previous administrations’ collection of civil penalties from rule-violating polluters.
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