The EPA must do more

The EPA building in Washington DC. Photo: Mark Ordonez via Flickr (CC BY).
The EPA building in Washington DC. Photo: Mark Ordonez via Flickr (CC BY).
Is the Environment Protection Agency in the United States as effective as it could be in regulating environmental issues?

Dozens of residents have chronic health conditions, and even as residents say that environmental conditions are to blame, government reports don't mention that aspect.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is an independent agency under the federal government in the United States that focuses on all things related to safeguarding the environment, including enforcing environmental quality regulations. However, some people assert that the EPA falls short in that area.

As a result, individuals, wildlife and entire communities could be at risk for the ramifications that come about when regulations are loose or non-existent. Insufficient rules might also trigger more substantial issues that are not immediately apparent, but severe nonetheless.

It's common for people to argue that the EPA needs to step up its regulatory efforts without getting into specifics. However, here are a few concrete things that the EPA could do to improve regulations for environmental quality.

More Accountability

The EPA, along with other federal organizations, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conduct environmental quality inspections and alert organizations to potential hazards. But, evidence suggests that those checks do not happen frequently enough, and perhaps, the EPA downplays the severity of issues that worry residents the most.

A document published by the Office of the Inspector General shows that the EPA did not carry out adequate evaluations to check for asbestos levels in schools from 2011 through 2015. The agency conducted only 13% of the inspections required under the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act during that timespan. The EPA blamed budget cuts for the issue, but in any case, the lack of inspections means the parties to blame are not necessarily held accountable.

On a related note, the EPA conducted soil tests in 2009 and selected North Birmingham, Alabama as a Superfund site, which means it has hazardous waste contamination and got designated by the EPA as a candidate for cleanup due to the risks caused to human health and the environment.

But, residents allege that the EPA isn't doing enough to check that progress happens in the community. Dozens of residents have chronic health conditions, and even as residents say that environmental conditions are to blame, government reports don't mention that aspect.

The EPA's cleanup operation is ongoing, and people say the organization is not cracking down hard enough on the contributing parties. Indeed, if the entities causing the problems don't receive punishments for their actions, they likely won't be motivated to change their operations very much, if at all.

Fewer Delays

The EPA also receives criticism due to complaints that regulatory reform takes too long to happen. Concerning improvements to the New Source Review (NSR) air construction permitting process whereby construction projects associated with stationary polluters must receive permits before commencing, small-scale actions initially happened about once per month. But now, the EPA seems to be in a rain-delay period regarding its reform actions in 2019.

Dozens of residents have chronic health conditions, and even as residents say that environmental conditions are to blame, government reports don't mention that aspect.

Personnel changes and the lessons learned from previous legal pushbacks brought about by environmental groups may be among the root causes of the EPA's noticeable slowness. Additionally, it's possible that the EPA would rather issue rules to follow instead of merely giving guidance, and that action takes comparatively more time to implement.

Alarming delays occur for things under the EPA's control not related to air pollution, too. For example, the EPA will take action on nonstick chemicals that pollute drinking water by the end of 2019, and critics say that timeframe is too generous.

There is also an assortment of state governments trying to take more decisive action to combat climate change. Colorado and California are among the states where leaders set specific climate change mitigation targets in response to the delayed response from the EPA to do so — likely because members of the current Administration deny that global warming is a serious issue.

The lack of prompt action mentioned here is only a sampling of how the EPA is, in the eyes of many, failing to swiftly mandate corrections. If the agency improved in this area, environmental quality issues would almost certainly improve.

Tighter Rules

It's also worth highlighting some instances where the EPA shows signs of loosening or not enforcing the rules adequately against entities that cause pollution. This matter is similar to the one mentioned in the earlier section about accountability, but it more often allows companies to continue operating in ways that degrade environmental quality without getting penalized.

For example, in June 2019, an EPA chief eased the restrictions on coal-fired power plants initially put in place during Barack Obama's presidency. This decision happened despite the EPA's internal analysis that the air pollution from these facilities could result in up to 1,500 more deaths per year by 2030.

Also, researchers compiled a list of more than 80 environmental rules that got rolled back under the Trump Administration. That means coal power plant operators are not the only parties that could potentially cause detrimental effects to environmental quality without officially doing anything wrong.

A study released in February 2019 also suggests that the EPA is less aggressive when polluters do break the rules — and here's where accountability comes into play again. The research revealed an 80 percent drop in the penalties the EPA brought against offenders. Plus, the amount of injunctive relief — money paid by those at fault to fix issues and stop them from happening again — reached a 15-year low.

The issues brought up here indicate that, in various ways, the EPA is moving in the wrong direction when curbing environmental quality issues. Instead of acting in ways that make violators want to remedy their actions, EPA representatives far too often behave in ways that make the perpetrators believe they won't face the consequences, perpetuate delays that let years pass before remediation happens and allow the guilty parties to look forward to looser regulations.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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