Can the Chesapeake Bay get cleaned up faster if the environmental cops spend less time on the beat, but focus on the worst polluters and count on the rest to get the message?
That's essentially what the Environmental Protection Agency proposes to do in a "strategic plan" the agency released earlier this month. The blueprint talks about addressing climate change, improving air quality and reinvigorating water-quality improvement efforts over the next five years, extending beyond the end of the Obama administration.
Buried in the plan, though, the agency projects making 25 percent fewer inspections than it did five years ago, and bringing nearly 30 percent fewer enforcement actions. EPA intends to "focus its inspection efforts on the largest facilities and violations," the plan says, while relying on "advanced monitoring" and electronic self-reporting by industries to help the agency target its efforts.
Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a pro-regulation think tank, says she's worried about what she calls EPA's "retreat" from enforcement. And as a Maryland resident and professor at the University of Maryland's law school, she said she's concerned about what it means for the protracted struggle to restore the Chesapeake.
"With the sharp cuts to enforcement called for in the plan, bay cleanup efforts could easily veer .. far off track," she said.
Not so, assured Cynthia Giles, assistant EPA administrator for enforcement. While funding cuts have forced a reduction in inspections and enforcement actions, she said the agency is adjusting by focusing on pollution cases with the highest impact on public health and the environment.
"Like everywhere across government, our resources have gone down in recent years," Giles said in a recent interview. "We are working hard to make sure the resources we have are put to their best possible use."
Giles pointed to EPA's recently announced settlement with Lowe's Home Centers, one of the nation's largest home improvement chains, over alleged violations of federal regulations requiring contractors to minimize children's exposure to toxic lead paint dust when painting or renovating older homes. In the agreement, Lowe's agreed to pay a $500,000 penalty, but also to ride herd on the contractors it hires at its 1,700 stores nationwide to see that they comply with the rules.
"We think that the impact of the agreement .. goes far beyond the contractors who are directly hired by Lowe's," Giles said.
Steinzor acknowledged that EPA must cope with deep budget cuts made by Congress and by President Obama. But she contended that electronic monitoring is no substitute for in-person inspections. The projected cutback in enforcement actions could lead to an overall decline in compliance with environmental laws and regulations, she argued.
"The deterrence that is possible requires that you actually be standing there," Steinzor said, likening it to how a police car on the highway prompts motorists to slow down. "You have to create the impression that you are on it and that if people do bad things, you're going to be there to see it."
In a recent blog post, Steinzor noted that EPA has taken enforcement action against 12 different companies in the six-state bay region since the year began, including a solvent processing plant in Cockeysville that was allegedly storing industrial waste in a room with a leaky floor.
"Essentially, the plan broadcasts to facilities like the Cockeysville processing plant ... that EPA is very unlikely to get ever around to checking up on them," she said.
EPA plans to keep a focused enforcement effort in the Chesapeake region, Giles said, which includes going after large emitters of air pollution that contribute to water quality problems in the bay. But she said EPA will also continue to monitor smaller facilities, including the many large-scale poultry and livestock farming operations in the watershed.
Giles said electronic reporting will help EPA spot the most significant environmental problems, but is not intended to supplant in-person enforcement action.
"We think there's some ways to use new technologies to punch above our weight to protect the environment and public health," she said. Using remote monitoring and electronic reporting, she said, "won't always require someone to go out in the field."
Steinzor also questioned the goal EPA set in its plan for making progress in restoring the Chesapeake. It calls for meeting water-quality standards in 45 percent of the bay by 2018, up from around 40 percent in 2011. EPA has ordered Maryland and the other five states in the bay watershed to have 60 percent of the programs and regulations needed to fully restore the bay in place by 2017, she pointed out.
Jon Capacasa, who oversees water quality efforts in EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office, said the difference between EPA's goal and the states' just reflects the lag that experts expect in how quickly the bay will respond to pollution reductions.