Stateline Story

States Defend Environmental Record

  • May 14, 2001
  • By John Nagy
State officials have claimed for years that they, not the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), do the vast majority of traditional environmental work the inspections, assessments and enforcement actions on potential and real polluters carried out each year in the United States. Now, they say, as the debate over their capacity to handle environmental responsibility continues, they have the numbers to prove it.

In an April 30 report commissioned by Congress two years ago and released to the public last week, state regulators offered evidence of their role as frontline enforcers of the nation's core environmental laws governing air, water and waste. But the report itself highlighted significant flaws in the nation's environmental data reporting system that green groups say may compromise the states' conclusions."We found that states conduct at least 90 percent of the enforcement actions. But we also found that the states are strict twice as likely to call a violation "significant" as is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)," said the report's main author, R. Steven Brown, who is the deputy executive director of the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS).

"There had been a series of reports from the EPA Inspector General's office, GAO (Congress' General Accounting Office) and several private groups all of which basically called into question the states' ability to enforce. That wasn't the experience we had in talking to our members and we thought there was another story to tell. And Congress wanted to hear it," Brown said.

ECOS is the non-profit, non-partisan association of state and territorial environmental officials established in 1993 "to champion the role of states in environmental management."

The ECOS study, conducted last year in partnership with the National Academy of Public Administration using funds appropriated through EPA, surveyed state programs and consulted EPA records to gather a wide range of environmental protection data, including the total numbers of regulated sites, on-site inspections, significant violations found and compliance rates.

State agencies counted a total of 1.75 million regulated sites, ranging from well fields to factories, around the country in 1999. But the survey revealed serious differences in what states include in their tallies. Some states, for example, counted the underground storage tanks found beneath gasoline stations as regulated sites, while others did not.

The states also reported conducting 501,000 inspections and over 449,000 "additional compliance evaluations" leading to the discovery of 25,738 significant violations and the collection of $92 million in penalties in 1999. EPA, meanwhile, found 15,577 significant violations that year.

Additionally, the report found that the number of site inspections conducted by state agencies showed an 18 percent increase over the five years between 1995 and 1999. "ECOS is pleased to report that states are making gigantic and effective contributions to environmental enforcement, much more than previously reported," the authors wrote.

But important questions about the quality of the data remain. Overall, 36 states responded to the enforcement survey, leaving information gaps that state officials readily acknowledge. EPA supplied 1999 enforcement data for the remaining 14 states, prompting environmental groups to blast the report for relying on insufficient data and apples-and-oranges compilations of numbers in several categories."What it really shows is that we don't have good accountability mechanisms in place now for states. We don't have good information about what states are doing on enforcement. The states themselves don't have good information," said Nancy Stoner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Clean Water Project.

Brown said that failure of the remaining states to respond indicated a lack of resources rather than a lack of interest from state officials.

"In some cases it was just tough timing. Maryland is an example of a state that has great environmental data. We made the request of them at the same time that their annual report to the legislature was due and they just couldn't do both," Brown said.

"What this really does is lay out the case for having better systems to make states accountable," said Stoner, who furnished ECOS with written comments to a draft of the report.

A second part of the ECOS survey details problems with data discrepancies and information flow among the states and EPA. The report identified database flaws, the interpretation of EPA data guidelines and time lapses in the reporting and transmission of data as key problems.

EPA and ECOS officials are discussing how to address these concerns and the possibility of producing a uniform, publicly accessible environmental data system in the future, Brown said.