Placing ‘politics about pollution control’ EPA drops surprise inspections for chemical and power plants

“Taking the element of surprise away from inspections decreases their effectiveness."

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Citing their concern for “increased cooperations and transparency,” the EPA has announced that they are discontinuing a policy that allowed officials to drop in on chemical and power plants without prior notice.

The “no surprises” policy was announced via a memo from Susan Bodine, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “EPA aims to enhance its partnerships with its state, local, and tribal co-regulators by more effectively carrying out our shared responsibilities under environmental laws,” stated the memo, addressed to regional administrators.

The new approach is “the foundation of joint work planning and will minimize the misunderstand­ings that can be caused by the lack of regular, bilateral communication.”

The EPA will now provide states with “with advance notice of inspections” and taking steps for deciding “when facilities are to be provided notice of inspections”, notify the state in advance before taking any enforcement action, and work with states to “reduce unnecessary burdens on the regulatory community.”

“EPA regions and the states should work together to identify which inspections the EPA or a state will perform,” the memo read. The EPA claims that this new approach will “avoid duplicate efforts, improve efficiency, reduce unnecessary burdens on the regulated community, and could provide EPA regions and states with more flexibility in setting and adjusting inspection targets and Compliance Monitoring Strategies.”

Environmentalists are furious over the change. “Taking the element of surprise away from inspections decreases their effectiveness, for obvious reasons,” said Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the watchdog group that broke the news of the change.

The EPA says that there will still be surprise inspections at facilities but only after state regulators are aware. This will allow a partnership to form between the EPA and states so there is an “understanding between EPA and the State regarding confidentiality and “whether or when” a facility would get advance notice of an inspection.”

“Basing enforcement on interagency consensus places politics above pollution control,” Whitehouse argues. “Nobody opposes cooperation or supports duplication, but this policy risks environmental protection by giving the upper hand to corporate polluters and states that don’t want to enforce environmental laws.” 

The memo also stated that, “The EPA may take an enforcement action where a state is not taking timely and appropriate action.”

PEER also pointed out that criminal pollution enforcement under Trump’s EPA is at record low levels, so forcing states to communicate with the EPA before taking action may further undermine the process of oversight.

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