By Mark Schleifstein, The Times-Picayune
Louisiana is among the worst states at enforcing federal clean air, clean water and hazardous waste laws, and the Environmental Protection Agency should either force Louisiana and fellow laggards to do a better job, or enforce the laws itself, according to a report released Monday by EPA’s inspector general.
The report does not spotlight specific environmental problems caused by Louisiana’s lax regulatory regime, focusing instead on a broad failure to carry out required inspections and cite violators. It concludes that the weak enforcement might be driven in part by “a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry.”
Citizen groups have frequently targeted the state agency charged with enforcing federal environmental laws: the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality. One complaint against DEQ in 2001 triggered a comprehensive audit by the EPA, resulting in major changes in state enforcement.
But even with the changes, Louisiana ranks so low compared with other states in the percentage of major facilities inspected, the number of violations found at those facilities, and the frequency in which the state issued a penalty for violations that the inspector general’s office highlighted it in the new report.
“Although the state has completed the recommended actions, the state’s poor performance persisted,” the report said. Louisiana, it notes, still has the lowest enforcement activity level in EPA’s Region 6, which also includes Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
“State, EPA regional, and external interview responses attributed Louisiana’s poor performance to several factors, including a lack of resources, natural disasters, and a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry,” said the report, signed by EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins.
The EPA generally delegates enforcement of federal environmental laws to state-level agencies. In Louisiana, DEQ has “primacy” in enforcement of the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates storage and disposal of hazardous waste.
DEQ defends enforcement
DEQ officials said the agency has not had time to review the statistics used in the inspector general’s report. But they said they do not believe the state’s enforcement record is accurately represented.
Spokesman Rodney Mallett said the state contends it has successfully inspected 50 percent of major permit holders each year, which would be equivalent to the agency’s goal of inspecting 100 percent every two years.
He said the agency issued 1,953 enforcement actions in fiscal year 2001. The report, however, does not compare total enforcement actions between states.
Instead, it examines the number of actions, and the time taken to issue them, in comparison to the number of industries regulated, and on those counts, it found Louisiana lacking.
Enforcement Division Administrator Celena Cage said volunteer educational programs aimed at improving compliance seem to be working.
“They’re not required by any program of EPA, but we’re finding that as a result of those programs that compliance is being achieved at a much higher rate, and therefore the need for traditional enforcement activities has been decreased,” Cage said.
The report’s criticisms come as no surprise to several Louisiana environmental groups, including the Louisiana Bucket Brigade and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, both of which have repeatedly pushed EPA to come down on the state.
A complaint filed by LEAN, which represents more than 100 environmental groups in the state, led to the 2001 audits.
“It is an outrage that Louisiana is at the bottom of the list for enforcement even though we are one of the most industrialized states in the nation,” said LEAN Executive Director MaryLee Orr. “This report reinforces what we have been observing over time. We have been aware over the last decade that the chemical and oil and gas industry seems to have a constant presence and influence over decisions that are made by the staff at LDEQ.”
The Bucket Brigade have filed successful suits in federal court to enforce the Clean Air Act against Murphy Oil and Chalmette Refining in St. Bernard Parish.
“Both the Murphy and Chalmette refineries were found guilty of violating the Clean Air Act for violations that had been on the record for years,” said Bucket Brigade director Anne Rolfes. “They had been sitting in DEQ files gathering dust for years, when what should have happened was agency enforcement actions.”
The report agrees with the state’s contention that comparing the enforcement records of individual states, as it did, can be difficult, or even misleading, and recommends that EPA develop metrics to measure state enforcement activities.
Those metrics would be used to develop a state performance scorecard to track enforcement activity.
The report also recommends giving EPA’s Washington-based Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance the authority to oversee a nationwide enforcement program, rather than the present system, which divides those duties among 10 regional offices.
The report also recommends establishing “a clear and credible escalation policy” under which EPA would intervene when states don’t enforce federal environmental laws. One such intervention could have occurred when Louisiana and EPA manpower was lacking to enforce the federal environmental laws in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the report said.