On July 29th, the Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette charged six more public officials in connection with their roles in the Flint Water Crisis. One of the six charged included a senior management official at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)- the former Chief of the Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. The latest charges are in addition to the two MDEQ officials charged in April.
Attorney General Schuette stated:
"Many things when tragically wrong in Flint. Some people failed to act, others minimized harm done and arrogantly chose to ignore data. Some intentionally altered figures and covered up significant health risks." (emphasis added)
Ohio experienced its own issues with drinking water in Sebring Ohio. In January, Ohio EPA fired two employees for failing to timely provide information to the District Office deemed critical to providing timely information regarding the condition of water in Sebring. Here is what Ohio EPA’s Press Release said about the reason for terminating the employees:
"Ohio EPA Central Office employee responsible for sending laboratory results from the Central Office failed to ensure that data was provided to the field office to help them conduct their review…The employee’s supervisor is also being terminated for not properly managing an employee who had an existing record of performance issues and not providing appropriate corrective counseling or progressive discipline despite being instructed to do so."
Ohio EPA also announced that it established a new process to provide staff with a direct and expedited communication route to senior Ohio EPA officials of situations that have possible “significant environmental and public health consequences.”
It is rare for State environmental protection agencies to fire employees for not performing their job. It is even more rare for criminal charges to be brought against State EPA employees relating to performance of their job functions. The firings and criminal charges have garnered national attention. The crises have, no doubt, had an effect on the cultural and work environments of State EPA.s
Here are five things businesses can expect:
- More Aggressive Deadlines- One of the themes from Flint and Sebring was whether officials acted on information on a timely basis. Also, whether officials raised public health issues up the chain quickly. As a result, it is likely regulators will be demanding more aggressive deadlines for businesses to address non-compliance and/or investigate issues.
- Demand for Action- Regulators will have less tolerance for debating over appropriate responses to ongoing violations and/or investigating issues. If businesses don’t respond in a timely fashion (in the Agency’s viewpoint) or refuse to take the steps the Agency believes are appropriate, regulators will takes action. This could be performing sampling using Agency resources (not waiting for businesses to sample). This could be referring matters up the chain more quickly for enforcement.
- Less Deference to Outside Technical Consultants– Regulators will be less willing to defer to the private sector to decide how to appropriately respond. Historically, it was common place for private consultants and agency representatives to debate technical issues. With the pressure on agency employees to perform their duties quickly this will likely translate to less deference to private consultants.
- More Involvement of Management in Decision Making- Another theme from both Flint and Sebring was whether agency employees made management aware of issues in a timely fashion. For example, Ohio EPA announced a new protocol for making senior management aware of "public health" issues quickly. What constitutes a public health issue or potential issue is vague. Lower level employees will be more inclined to raise issues up chain of command to management. In some cases, even directing businesses to address correspondence directly to senior management when that same correspondence would have gone to staff just a year ago.
- Changing Work Environments- Even though environmental regulators perform a critical function, the stereotype is that government workers have less stress and more reasonable work hours then their counterparts in the private sector. With the added pressure and spotlight these recent news events have brought, there will be changes in the work environment within State EPAs. These "cultural" changes will also be felt by businesses, consultants and individuals that interact with regulators.