The Bush Administration wants to shift more of the job of enforcing environmental laws to the states. The Environmental Protection Agency proposes to give states twenty-five million dollars to do the job. However, environmentalists, the General Accounting Office and even the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General find problems with the plan. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has more:
The Bush administration wants to shift more of the job of enforcing environmental laws to the states. The Environmental Protection Agency proposes to give states 25-million dollars to do the job. However, Environmentalists, the General Accounting Office and EVEN the EPA’s own Office of Inspector General find problems with the plan. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.
Although the EPA is responsible for enforcement of national environmental laws, in most cases it assigns much of that authority to the states. Already 44 state environmental agencies act as the enforcement agency for the EPA. Now in its fiscal year 2002 budget, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator, Christie Todd Whitman, proposes cutting the agency’s staff and giving more money to the states to enforce environmental laws. This move would only shift a little more of that burden to the states.
Some members of Congress have been pushing for shifting many of the federal government’s enforcement duties to the state level, arguing that the people at the state level are more attuned to the effects that strictly enforcing regulatory laws can have on the local economy.
The EPA has found that’s sometimes true. But in considering the economic impact, the state regulators don’t always enforce the law the way the EPA wants it to be done and that can be bad for the environment. Eileen McMahon is with the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General.
“We have –going back to 1996– been doing reviews and evaluations of different areas of enforcement, air enforcement, water enforcement, other enforcement and have found, certainly, cases where the states could be doing a better job.”
In a report released just last month the EPA’s Inspector General found that while some states have great records at enforcing environmental laws. But in many other cases some states have simply looked the other way.
“We found that states’ concerns with regulating small and economically vital businesses and industries had an impact on whether or not they were effectively deterring non-compliance.”
Some environmental groups are not surprised by those findings. Elliot Negin is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says he wouldn’t expect much good to come from letting states take more responsibility for enforcing environmental laws.
“Well, it’s gonna open a whole can of worms. The states, many states have pretty bad track records when it comes to upholding environmental laws. And, the state politicians are, unfortunately, sometimes too close to the polluters through campaign contributions and what not.”
Despite those concerns, some members of Congress feel the US EPA has been too aggressive in its application of environmental laws, and that shifting more of the enforcement authority to the states would bring a certain measure of common sense to the process.
As, the two sides argue about the merits of enforcing environmental laws at the federal level or the state level. One government office says no decision should be made at all just yet. The General Accounting office says the states and the EPA should take stock of how things are working now.
The GAO just released a report that finds cutting staff at the federal level and shifting resources to the state level — in other words, just what EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whittman is proposing— is premature. John Stephenson is the Director of Natural Resources and Environment for the GAO. He says the EPA has no idea how many people it takes to properly enforce the law because its workforce plan is more than a decade old.
“And, so, that’s basic information you would need to determine, number one, how many enforcement personnel that the states might need and number two how many personnel EPA headquarters might need to oversee the states.”
The GAO’s Stephenson says until some kind of workforce assessment is done. There’s little point in debating whether the EPA or the states are better suited to enforce environmental laws.
“This shift in authority, as you know, is an ongoing debate in the Congress and we feel like that there needs to be this basic workforce analysis done before either side is in a position to support their relative positions.”
The EPA agreed with the General Accounting Office’s findings. But it’s unclear whether there’s enough time to assess the agencies and states’ workforce needs before Congress approves the budget that could shift some of the enforcement authority to the states.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.