The EPA starts its effort to protect public health and the environment by understanding the problem it is trying to fix. This means: collecting data on what pollution exists, such as by placing air quality monitors in communities or seeking emissions testing from factories; researching how that pollution affects humans and the environment, including laboratory work on health effects, reviewing the scientific literature, and getting expert advice from leading scientists; and analyzing all of the information to form a complete understanding of the challenge.
Second, the agency seeks to understand what solutions exist for the problem. This includes: studying technologies to reduce or counteract pollution, such as devices that can be added to a smokestack or a vehicle to reduce smog and soot; meeting with a broadly inclusive group of the public, stakeholders and interested parties, including the polluting industry facing potential emissions reduction requirements as well as the people suffering the effects of pollution; and considering the full range of ways to address the problem, while also weighing the consequences of certain options, like the effect on jobs or on other types of pollution.
Third, the EPA designs a program that will address the problem as completely as possible while causing as little disruption as necessary. This process starts with careful consideration of what the law authorizes the EPA to do – for example, the Clean Air Act treats factories and cars very differently. Through this, the EPA analyzes different regulatory schemes and seeks public input about how well they would address the pollution problem and what effect they would have on other pollution or on the economy. After receiving as much input as possible and analyzing the feasible options, the EPA will select a regulatory scheme that protects public health and instructs polluters about what they must do.
Fourth, the EPA has to make sure that polluters follow the rules – and actually achieve the emissions reductions required – if the public is to benefit as intended. That means continuing to collect information as in the first step, and when necessary take steps with polluters to correct deficiencies – up to and including bringing enforcement actions.
Tying all this together is the public’s entitlement to learn, in detail, what actions the EPA is proposing, then to comment on the proposed rule and its requirements, and then to see the EPA’s full response to the questions, concerns and suggestions made in those comments by way of EPA’s fully laying out the data, analysis and arguments needed to justify the final rule the EPA issues.
If the EPA fails to undertake or complete these steps in a timely way when laws like the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act mandate that it take action, the public can hold the agency accountable by taking the agency to court, where almost invariably judges order the EPA to meet a schedule – unless the agency and the litigants agree on a schedule themselves.