Collecting information is critical to EPA’s efforts to ensure polluters are complying with the law and to detect sources that are not. EPA’s ten regional offices, acting on their own authority, are instrumental in collecting this information. A new directive slows this process by requiring EPA headquarters to clear all agency requests for information from polluting sources.
EPA’s ability to collect information underlies its ability to investigate and detect whether individual sources are meeting their legal obligations to curb pollution. Direct engagement with polluters simplifies these compliance and enforcement processes. The expectation that EPA can gather needed information underpins polluters’ commitments and incentives to comply with their pollution control requirements.
Under previous administrations, EPA staff in the field were authorized to request information as part of their frontline responsibility for identifying environmental non-compliance and crimes associated with illegal levels of pollution and waste-dumping. This information-gathering network was effective because staff were on the ground in communities and had the authority to act when facts emerged that warranted further information collection.
Administrator Pruitt now requires all EPA personnel to clear each information request through headquarters. The immediate effect of this directive is delay and inefficiency, since requests must now go through an additional layer of review by headquarter employees. These employees operate hundreds or even thousands of miles away from sites subject to information requests and have less knowledge of the facts underlying the requests than that of their regional counterparts.
Nothing in the Pruitt directive provides assurances that headquarters’ review of information requests will be insulated from the kind of political influence from which EPA’s compliance and enforcement activities have been rigorously shielded in the past. This policy appears to have already led to fewer requests for information and slower enforcement actions. The Trump EPA is underperforming previous administrations’ collection of civil penalties from rule-violating polluters.
For more information on other changes to compliance monitoring and enforcement at EPA, please see:
This post was edited for clarity on Jan. 23, 2020.