Environmental Protection

EPA's and States' Efforts to Focus State Enforcement Programs on Results Gao ID: T-RCED-98-233 June 23, 1998

Most major environmental statutes allow the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to delegate the responsibility for key programs to qualified states. In order for states to obtain such responsibility, they generally are required to have adequate authority to inspect, monitor, and enforce the program. Recently, some state have supplemented these traditional enforcement activities with other, more cooperative approaches to improve compliance through technical assistance and various incentives. GAO discusses (1) the alternative compliance strategies that states are practicing, (2) whether and how states are measuring the effectiveness of these strategies, and (3) how EPA has responded to these states' efforts, focusing on the agency's objective of holding the states accountable for achieving environmental results, rather than focusing solely on enforcement processes.

GAO noted that: (1) approaches used by 10 states GAO contacted that are experimenting with alternative compliance strategies generally fall into two categories: (a) compliance assistance programs that seek to help dischargers comply with environmental requirements; and (b) programs that promote more flexible enforcement than is practiced under the current system; (2) these programs generally target smaller facilities or businesses that may not understand the requirements and the most efficient and effective ways of meeting them; (3) among the key flexible enforcement approaches employed were audit privilege/immunity policies or laws, which generally encourage facilities to use environmental auditing to assess their environmental performance and correct the problems identified; (4) nine of the 10 states had some type of audit privilege/immunity program, four of which were authorized by the states' statutes; (5) GAO found broad agreement among the state and EPA officials GAO contacted that the effectiveness of alternative compliance strategies should be measured and addressed; (6) yet while GAO identified a number of innovative efforts under way, states' efforts to measure the effectiveness of alternative compliance strategies have proven to be much more difficult than counting and reporting traditional enforcement outputs; (7) EPA has initiated a number of activities to improve compliance using nontraditional approaches, such as establishing compliance assistance centers, rewarding voluntary self-disclosure of environmental violations, and working jointly with states to develop results-oriented performance measures; (8) these programs have complemented and facilitated states' efforts, but the agency has also maintained a continued emphasis on strong enforcement, noting that the deterrent effect achieved through enforcement actions motivates regulated entities to seek compliance assistance and use incentive policies; (9) some of the differences between EPA and state regulatory authorities over state intiatives reflect different legal and policy views; and (10) GAO found, however, that these differences were exacerbated by inconsistent approaches by different EPA offices on how the adequacy of state enforcement programs should be assessed--particularly as it relates to the appropriate balance in states' use of traditional and non-traditional tools for achieving compliance.

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