On January 22, 2018, U.S. EPA’s Assistant Administrator issued a memorandum to all U.S. EPA Regional Administrators that contained interim guidance on enforcement of environmental violations by State EPAs and the federal EPA.  The interim guidance is a significant shift away from the traditional federal/state balance on enforcement giving much greater leeway to the States.

U.S. EPA has always been active in enforcement in states, even states that have delegated programs.  EPA traditionally has set its own enforcement priorities, performed its own inspections and proceeded with enforcement when it finds violations.  While it may inform the states of its activities, it generally would not defer to the states once it initiates enforcement.

Often the federal EPA can be more stringent than the states in seeking corrective measures and/or civil penalties.  States are viewed as being more reasonable and open to considering practical compliance issues and costs of compliance.

The interim guidance signifies a shift away from this traditional approach.  Specifically, the memorandum makes the following two major statements:

  • With respect to inspections and enforcement, the EPA will generally defer to authorized States as the primary day-to-day implementer of their authorized/delegated programs. except in specific situations.
  • Where the EPA identifies violations at a facility, but the State requests that it take the lead for
    remedying the violations, the Region should defer to the State except where the EPA believes that some EPA involvement is warranted (as described in paragraph 2, above)

These statements are signify a pretty dramatic shift towards the states in controlling enforcement process within its borders.  In particular, the idea that if the EPA identifies violations and informs the states, the state can request to take the lead.  In this instance, the guidance makes clear the EPA should defer to the states except in special circumstances that are outlined in the memorandum.

The memorandum is just another indication that the Trump Administration wants to shift primary regulatory and enforcement authority to the states.

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:

  1.  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.
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 

On February 28, 2016, U.S. EPA publicly announced its priority enforcement areas (EPA National Enforcement Initiatives or NEIs) for the next three years (fiscal years 2017-2019).  The announcement provides keen insight into how EPA plans to allocate its enforcement resources in the coming years.  

 EPA describes the NEIs in the following manner:

"Every three years, EPA selects National Enforcement Initiatives to focus resources on national environmental problems where there is significant non-compliance with laws, and where federal enforcement efforts can make a difference"

EPA has elected to keep five of its current enforcement initiatives, expanding some of its efforts, as well as add two new initiatives.  This brings the total priorities to seven for fiscal years 2017-2019.  The NEIs take effect on October 1, 2016. 

A brief summary of each NEI is provided below.

Air

  • Reducing Air Pollution form the Largest Sources-  EPA’s New Source Review (NSR) initiative has targeted cement, glass and acid plants.  However, its principal target has been coal fired power plants.  According to U.S. EPA statistics, from FY 2010 to FY 2015, of the 800 facilities inspected, EPA has increased the number of facilities with enhanced air pollution controls from 41% to 77%.  By maintaining this enforcement priority, EPA will likely focus on compliance with existing decrees as well as target new industries.
  • Cutting Hazardous Air Pollutants – EPA is expanding this initiative for the FY 2017-2019 to focus its efforts on two additional source categories-
    • Large product storage tanks used by refineries,chemical plants and bulk storage facilities- EPA will likely used enhanced inspection techniques, such as infrared cameras to looks for leaks of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from these storage units;
    • Hazardous waste generator and treatment, storage, and disposal facilities-  the focus of this expanded initiative will be to address hazardous waste tanks, surface impoundments, or containers, as well as related hazardous waste treatment equipment.

Energy Extraction

  • Ensuring Energy Extraction Activities Comply with Environmental Laws

The attached chart shows the dramatic increase in the number of inspections and enforcement actions related to energy extraction.  

EPA has increased the number of inspections from 361 in FY 2011 to between 600 to 700 per year.  Interestingly, the number of enforcement actions has not significantly increased when comparing FY 2011 to subsequent years. 

It is also interesting that EPA maintained this initiative despite the recent dramatic economic downturn in the energy sector.

  

Hazardous Chemicals

  • Reducing Pollution from Mineral Processing Operations- Focus is on releases from mining operations that EPA believes threaten drinking water, surface water as well as cleanup mining sites.
  • Reducing Risks of Accidental Releases at Industrial and Chemical Facilities (NEW)-  The focus of this new initiative will be compliance with Risk Management Plan (RMP) rule.  RMPs are required for facilities that store extremely hazardous materials.  RMP is required under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act.  Facilities are required to have plans that inventory the materials and have a plan to implement in the event of releases or emergencies.  Plans are required to be updated every five years. It is likely EPA will look for facilities that have failed to comply with the RMP rule or those facilities with outdated plans.

Water

  • Keeping Raw Sewage and Contaminated Stormwater Out of Our Nation’s Water-  EPA has largely addressed municipal wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) with combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and/or sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs).  This initiative was renewed most likely to focus on compliance with existing consent decrees.  In many cases, cities are facing the most expensive parts of their compliance schedules.
  • Preventing Animal Waste from Contaminating Surface and Ground Water- EPA has been focused on inspections and enforcement of Combined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for a number of years.  Since 2011 it has conducted over 1,800 inspections and concluded 217 enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act.
  • Keeping Industrial Pollutants Out of the Nation’s Waters (NEW)-  EPA will be focusing on certain industries that it believes contribute a larger portion of nutrient and metal pollution. Those industries include chemical and metal manufacturing, mining and food processing.  On its web-page, EPA signals that it will look to compliance with NPDES permits and electronic reporting of effluent violations (eDMRs) to initiate actions.

We know that U.S. EPA budget is tight.  Maybe that is why they are looking for new and innovative ways to reduce their work load.  This is evident in the memorandum released on January 7, 2015 by EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

The memorandum is titled "Use of Next Generation Compliance Tools in Civil Enforcement Settlements." In the memo, U.S. EPA Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles discusses use of advances in pollutant monitoring and information technology to "increase compliance with environmental regulations."  

Third Party Verification

One the the tools U.S. EPA recommends in its memorandum is the incorporation of "independent third party verification" into settlement agreements.  The concept is that an outside firm would be identified in the settlement to monitor a companies compliance with the injunctive relief portion of the settlement.  

U.S. EPA notes that the verifier must be truly independent.  It cannot be an environmental consultant who provides a report to the company before it supplies the compliance review report to U.S. EPA.  The verifier will have to certified as independent.  

The Agency notes that use of third party verifiers may be especially valuable in situations where the injunctive relief has a lengthy and/or complex compliance schedule. While the memo doesn’t discuss it, I’m certain the expectation is that the company will pay for the third party verification costs.  

Other Advanced Compliance Techniques

Other tools discussed in the memorandum include:

  • Advanced monitoring- Examples include monitoring techniques that are "not yet in widespread use," or less expensive, easier to use or mobile monitoring techniques. 
  • Electronic reporting-  A company would set up a system whereby it would electronically submit required reports and data in a searchable format.  EPA makes clear electronic reporting doesn’t mean just e-mailing the report to a U.S. EPA Regional Office.
  • Public accountability through increased transparency of compliance data-  The memo encourages companies to display compliance status on their webpage, via a mailer or on the Enforcement and Compliance History Online database (ECHO).  The idea is wider dissemination of compliance data will allow the public to monitor and notify U.S. EPA if a company is not meeting its commitments.

Conclusion

While EPA states this strategic initiative is designed to increase compliance.  The reality is that U.S. EPA doesn’t have the staff to keep up with its ever increasing workload.  The U.S. EPA wants to use monitoring equipment, the public and third parties as another set of eyes to monitor compliance. The additional costs for all of these new techniques will almost certainly be placed upon the settling party.  

 

When most people think of businesses that handle hazardous waste, they think of manufacturing and other industrial companies.  The classic image is the storage of 55 gallon drums marked with placards indicating the contents are hazardous. 

In the last two years and unlikely sector has found themselves the focus hazardous waste enforcement and regulatory development- retails stores.  National awareness occurred in 2013 when Walmart announced a settlement with EPA to resolve violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), and the Clean Water Act (CWA) .  The violations were related to the handling of returned, unsold, and off-specification products. Walmart agreed to pay $7.628 million in civil penalties and pled guilty and agreed to pay $81.6 million in three federal criminal cases. Walmart entered into a Consent Agreement and Final Order (CAFO) with EPA, under which Walmart agreed to implement various measures to ensure future compliance. 

While the Walmart settlement was the largest, EPA and State EPA’s have been very active in taking enforcement against retailers.  Actions include:

  • Walgreen Co., $16.6 Million (2012)
  • Costco Warehouse, $3.6 Million (2012);
  • CVS Pharmacy, $800,000 (CT, 2013) and $13.75 Million (CA, 2012
    settlement);
  • Target Corp., $22.5 Million (2011);
  • Home Depot, $425,000 (2006) and $10 Million (2007).

When Does RCRA Become an Issue for Retailers?

Products are not regulated as a hazardous waste.  However, if a product is returned by a customer or the store takes the product off the shelf due to damage or for some other reason, the product can become a hazardous waste if it meets certain characteristics.

At issue for retailers are paints, aerosol cans, bleach, polishes, and other chemical products that could be considered reactive, ignitable, corrosive or toxic.  When those products are returned by customers or if they are removed from the store, the retailer must evaluate whether the product has become a hazardous waste and should be managed as such.  

Waste can be generated at the retail store level through customer returns, household hazardous waste events, product recalls, damaged product containers or packaging, off specification product, unauthorized dumping, customer spills, and change out of inventory by the store. 

Large retailers also use reverse logistics systems to consolidate products that may be returned or removed from retail stores.   These products are sent to consolidation centers where decisions can be made regarding whether the product can still be sold, returned to the vendor, donated, recycled or discarded.  

Is a removed/returned product a "waste" when it leaves the retail store or when the decision is made it is to be discarded at the consolidation center?  That is one of many critical open issues facing retailers.

If a product is a hazardous waste, then it must be stored, managed, transported and disposed properly.  In addition, RCRA’s "cradle to grave" regulatory scheme requires maintenance of required paperwork to verify any hazardous waste was managed properly.

EPA Collects Information Regarding Hazardous Waste Requirements for Retailers

On February 14, 2014, EPA released a Notice of Data Availability (NODA) in order to "collect information towards improving hazardous waste requirements for the retail sector."  In the NODA EPA sums up the challenge facing retailers- "Retailers are required to make numerous hazardous waste determinations at thousands of sites, generally by store employees with limited experience with the RCRA hazardous waste regulations."

Some national retailers (Walmart and Home Depot) already submitted comments to EPA.  Some of the issues/concerns raised by these retailers include:

  1.  Waste characterization at the retail store level by employees with little training or understanding of the regulations;
  2. Generation of waste at the store level that can force stores to fluctuate between Conditionally Exempts Small Quantity Generator to Large Quantity Generator status under RCRA (different regulations apply depending on the store’s classification);
  3. The lack of applicability of the Household Hazardous Waste Exemption which allows customers to dispose of the same products in the trash as EPA requires retailers to manage as a hazardous waste;
  4. Argue for the application of Universal Waste classification which would make it much easier for retailers to manage products; and
  5. Application of RCRA regulations to central processing centers utilized by retailers;
  6. Regulation of empty prescription bottles;
  7. Ambiguous regulations of electronic waste.

Retailers identify legitimate issues with application of RCRA to their stores.  In reality, RCRA was designed to regulate generate hazardous waste from industrial operations, not consumer stores.  

How EPA decides to move forward to develop sensible regulations will be very interesting to watch. However, in the meantime, retail stores must be aware there is not "timeout" while EPA figures this out.  No better evidences exists than the multi-million dollar enforcement cases against large retailers.

(Photo: courtesy Flickr Catawba County)

An EPA inspector shows up at your facility unannounced and requests access to inspect your facility.  Do you have to let them in?  If you deny access, how likely is it that EPA will quickly gain access?  What is the downside of making EPA  go through the step of legally gaining access by obtaining a search warrant?

Criminal Searches

In responding to the questions above, we are assuming this is an administrative inspection, not a criminal.  Typically, the EPA will have already secured a criminal search warrant before showing up on your property.  Less common, EPA could request your consent to perform a criminal search of your facility.  Under either circumstance, due to the serious nature of criminal inspections, you should contact your attorney immediately.

Here are some things you should do in addition to immediately contacting your attorney:

  • Do not answer any questions without your attorney present;  
  • Employees may, but are not required to answer questions of the inspectors, they have the right to the presence of their own attorney during any interview (the rights of employees during a criminal search warrant is a complicated issue that you should discuss with your attorney);
  • Request a copy of the search warrant as well as the inventory of seized items (if any);
  • Do not consent to the the search of an area or the seizure of materials not identified in the search warrant; 
  • Do not interfere with the government agents if a search warrant is provided;
  • If the warrant allows sampling, request a split sample of any material tested; and
  • Listen to what the inspectors are saying and take notes.

Administrative Searches

EPA, as an administrative agency, is authorized by law to conduct inspections of any property or facility under their jurisdiction.  

Can you deny EPA access for an administrative inspection?

Generally speaking, unless the inspector has obtained an administrative search warrant, you have the right to refuse the inspection and ask the inspector to leave.  The inspector can either try and negotiate a more convenient time to perform the inspection or obtain an administrative search warrant from a court.

While generally you have the right to refuse access when the EPA inspector does not have an administrative search warrant, the standard for obtaining such warrant is not that high.  When EPA is enforcing laws with health, safety, or welfare standards, or enforcing regulatory schemes, EPA only need demonstrate their inspection is supported by "reasonable legislative or administrative standards" (i.e. administrative probable cause).  See, U.S. v. M/V Sanctuary, 540 F.3d 295, 299 (4th Cir. 2008).

Here are some of EPA’s specific statutory inspection authority that provides the agency the right to obtain an administrative search warrant:

  • CERCLA-  EPA is authorized to enter at reasonable times any property where hazardous substances may be or has been generated, stored, treated, disposed of, or transported from.  Even properties where a release is only threatened.  EPA has the authority to collect samples, but must provide the results to the owner.  See, 42 U.S.C. Section 9604(e)
  • RCRA- Similar to EPA authority under CERCLA, EPA may perform inspections at reasonable times and collect samples of any facility where hazardous wastes are or have been generated, stored, treated, disposed of, or transported from.  See, 42 U.S.C. Section 6927(a)
  •  Clean Water Act– Relative to NDPES permitting, EPA has the right to enter any facility which is an effluent source or which is required to maintain records under the Act.   EPA can enter at reasonable time and get access to and copy any records, inspect any monitoring equipment or any other compliance method.  They also can sample effluent. See, 33 U.S.C. Section 308
  • Clean Air Act-   If you own or operate an air emissions source regulated under the Clean Air Act, EPA has broad authority to inspect the facility, monitoring equipment and records. EPA can also sample emissions. See, 42 U.S.C. Section 7414
  • TSCA-  Regulates "chemical substances."  A typical chemical substance subject to regulation under TSCA are PCBs.  EPA has broad inspection authority of any facility that is subject to regulation under TSCA.  EPA may inspect any establishment, facility, or other premises in which chemical substances, mixtures, or products subject to TSCA regulation are manufactured, processed, stored, or held.  See, 15 U.S.C. Section 2610

Note: Courts have found limited exceptions when EPA can perform a warrantless administrative search with regard to enforcement of environmental regulations.  As an example, the New Jersey Supreme Court held the State EPA did not need a warrant before inspecting a property that was subject to the terms of a wetland permit.  See, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection v. Robert and Michelle Huber

Should you deny access if the EPA inspector does not have an administrative search warrant?

It depends, it is always worth consulting with your attorney to review the particulars of the situation. Also, when the inspector arrives try and gain more information as to the purpose of the inspection. Before contacting your attorney, you should ask the inspector:

  • What they are seeking to inspect or issues are they concerned with?
  • What program are they from? (hazardous waste, air, water or multi-media inspections)
  • Did they receive a complaint or is this a routine inspection?  

As discussed above, the EPA will generally be able to secure a warrant from court to perform an administrative search.  Therefore, if you simply deny access without discussing the situation with your attorney, you run the risk the inspector will conclude you have something to hide.  

When the inspector secures the warrant, they could be inclined to perform a more intense inspection of your facility.  Furthermore, it is more than likely that the EPA inspector requesting access is assigned to your facility and will visit again in the future.  It is important to try and maintain a good working relationship with your inspector.

In conclusion, inspections are routine with regard to environmental regulation.  An inspection can simply confirm your facility is in compliance or it can be the first step in a lengthy and costly enforcement action.  If you are subject to an inspection, it is important to talk with your attorney.
 

On March 20, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the much anticipated decision in Sackett v. EPA.  The Court rejected U.S. EPA’s claims that its administrative enforcement orders were not subject to pre-enforcement review.  The Court’s decision provides a new tool to challenge EPA administrative compliance orders. 

Synopsis of the Case

The Clean Water Act prohibits filling of wetland without a permit.  The Sacketts own a .63 acre parcel of land on which they hoped to construct a home.  EPA said that the Sacketts had filled wetlands as part of their development without a permit. 

EPA decided to take enforcement by issuing an administrative compliance order directing the Sacketts to remove the fill.  If the Sacketts failed to comply with EPA’s order they could potentially be liable for penalties of $37,500 for each day of non-compliance with the order and potentially an additional $37,500 per day for the underlying Clean Water Act violation.

The Sacketts attempted to appeal the administrative order in Court to challenge EPA’s determination they filled regulated wetlands.  EPA argued that the Sacketts were not entitled to any pre-enforcement review of the administrative order. 

Lower Courts Ignore the Legal Presumption of a Right of Appeal

The Administrative Procedure Act ("APA") sets the standards for when administrative actions of federal agencies are subject to review or judicial appeal.  The APA contains a presumption that  federal statutes allow for judicial review of agency actions.  That presumption can be overcome if: 1) there is an explicit bar to pre-enforcement review in the statue; or 2)  the presumption "may be overcome by inferences of [congressional] intent drawn from the statutory scheme as a whole." 

The Clean Water Act does not contain an explicit bar to pre-enforcement review (such a bar does exist under CERCLA- the federal Superfund law).  Therefore, EPA had to argue the bar can be inferred from congressional intent.

Both the District Court and Appeals Court sided with EPA holding that a bar to review could be inferred from the congressional record and the language in the the Clean Water Act.

Supreme Court Unanimously Disagrees

Before determining whether there was a bar to appeal, the Court had to determine whether the administrative action amounted to a final order.  The Court found that the order issued by EPA had all the hallmarks of a final order, including:

  • It determined the rights of the party– in this case, the Sacketts were required to restore the wetland;
  • Legal consequence flow from the order- the Sacketts were subject to penalties if they failed to comply;
  • The order is final– EPA did not provide the Sacketts a meaningful opportunity to challenge the order

After finding the order was final, the Court then rejected the lower courts finding that the history and language of the Clean Water Act suggested there should be no pre-enforcement review of orders.  The Court held:

"APA’s presumption of judicial review is a repudiation of the principle that efficiency of regulation conquers all." and

There is "no reason to think that the [Clean Water Act] was uniquely designed to enable the strong-arming of regulated parties into ‘voluntary compliance’ without the opportunity for judicial review- even judicial review of the question whether the regulated party is within the EPA’s jurisdiction."

It is interesting that both lower courts sided with EPA, but yet the Supreme Court unanimously sided with the Sacketts.  Its difficult to understand how such a split could occur.

Implications

Clearly, the Courts ruling gives attorneys representing regulated parties who are the subject of an EPA unilateral compliance order a tool to challenge the merits of those orders.  Certainly, allowing such a review is a clear victory and certainly seems to comport with logic.  The right to challenge EPA orders also likely extends to other environmental statutes that do not contain an explicit bar to pre-enforcement review, including orders issued related to hazardous waste (RCRA) and the Clean Air Act.

However, the standard for overturning an EPA order is very difficult to meet.  In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision is unclear as to whether penalties continue to amass while litigation proceeds.

Under the APA, an EPA action is entitled to deference and can only be overturned if it is demonstrated that the EPA acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner or "otherwise in violation of the law."  That is a pretty tough hurdle to clear. 

Also, the Court didn’t address whether EPA could be entitled to penalties for non-compliance during the appeal let alone whether EPA could be entitled to double penalties-  one set of penalties for failing to comply with the EPA’s order at $37,500 per day and a second for violating the Clean Water Act (also at $37,500 per day).   Therefore, a party could be risking up to $70,000 per day to continue its challenge of the EPA’s action. 

Until another court rules EPA is not entitled to collect such large penalties during the appeal, the deck is still pretty much stacked in EPA’s favor or in the Court’s words, EPA can still "strong arm" regulated parties.

U.S. EPA’s Environmental Audit Policy encourages companies to self-evaluate their compliance with environmental requirements and disclose any violations to EPA.  As an incentive to disclose violations to EPA, the Audit Policy provides up to 100% forgiveness of gravity-based civil penalties if certain conditions are met. 

U.S. EPA’s audit policy contains nine (9) conditions that must be met in order to qualify for the penalty reduction incentive for self-disclosure.  Those nine conditions include:

1. Systematic Discovery–  There are two ways to qualify under this condition – perform an environmental audit or utilize a compliance management system to review compliance. If a company fails to meet this condition, EPA’s policy still may provide a 75% reduction in gravity-based civil penalties if the other eight conditions are satisfied.
2. Voluntary Discovery– The violations disclosed must not have been otherwise legally required to be disclosed.  (Example: Title V Air Permits require covered facilities to certify compliance on an annual basis with all requirements in the Title V air permit.  Therefore, a Title V facility would not qualify for the incentives under the EPA Audit Policy if it disclosed non-compliance with permitting requirements with its Title V permit.  Note:  EPA does have a limited exception for new owners of Title V facilities.)
3. Prompt Disclosure–  If you decide to disclose violations uncovered to try and secure gravity-based penalty reductions, the company must disclose all violations within 21 days of discovery
4. Independent Discovery and Disclosure– The audit cannot have been performed and/or the violation cannot have been discovered after a federal, state or local investigation, etc.
5. Correction and Remediation–  The violations must have been corrected within 60 days.
6. Prevent Recurrence–  The company must take steps to prevent recurrence of the violations. 
7. No Repeat Violations–  The same violations must not have occurred within 3 years at the same facility or within 5 years if EPA determines there is corporate pattern of violations.
8. Certain Violations Excluded–  The two types of violations are excluded from any penalty forgiveness– violations that have the potential to cause serious harm or if the company violates an order or agreement with EPA.
9. Cooperation-  The company must provide requisite or requested information to EPA.

Why Consider Using EPA’s Audit Policy?

If s company can successfully establish all the conditions under EPA’s audit policy for forgiveness of gravity-based civil penalties, the company may be able to avoid very large civil penalties that otherwise would have been paid if an EPA inspector detected the violations first.

One common area of environmental compliance that companies audit is Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) reporting requirements.  As a prime example of the benefits that may flow from using the U.S. EPA’s Audit Policy:

This February U.S. EPA entered into a settlement with a New Cingular Wireless PCS LLC.   The company found violations at 642 sites in 35 different states through two separate environmental audits.  According to the settlement, the company avoided $6.7 million in projected gravity based civil penalties that EPA otherwise may have pursued if the violations were discovered through EPA inspections versus an audit.  

While there are strong incentives to utilize EPA’s audit policy, there are many issues to navigate. Some of these issues will be the subject of future blog posts on this topic.  Those issues include:

  • Confidentiality of the audit;
  • Establishing the nine conditions;
  • The requirement to report all violations within 21 days
  • Gravity-based penalties versus the potential for assessment of economic benefit penalties

 

Senator Tom Niehaus has introduced S.B. 372 bill to extend the effectiveness of Ohio’s Environmental Audit Privilege law for another five years.  The law is set to expire on January 1, 2009.  It was a hard fought battle for businesses to get the Audit Privilege law on the books in the late 90’s.  While the law was watered down to address U.S. EPA concerns, it remains a valuable tool for some businesses. The law is intended to reward those companies that proactively evaluate their compliance with environmental requirements. 

What is the Ohio Environmental Audit Privilege law?  It is provides immunity from civil penalties if a company voluntarily discloses environmental violations to the appropriate State Agency that were uncovered as a result of an environmental compliance audit.  Note: a civil penalty can still be assessed even after a valid disclosure if the company enjoyed a "economic benefit" as a result of the violation, meaning delayed compliance gave it a competitive advantage.

As a further incentive to utilize the law, the content of an environmental audit report is privileged and not admissible as evidence in a civil or administrative proceeding. (See R.C. §3745.71(C) for exceptions to the privilege provisions)  This provision is meant to reduce exposure to third party suits as a result of environmental violations.

How frequently do businesses use the Audit Privilege Law?  In my experience the law has been used infrequently by Ohio businesses.  During my time at the Ohio EPA, I oversaw the processing of Audit Privilege disclosures.  I would estimate that the Agency received, on average, around four or five disclosures per year during my tenure. 

Why isn’t the Audit Privilege Law used more frequently?  I was always puzzled why more companies did not take advantage of the Audit Privilege law.  Some may believe it is better to correct the violation and wait and see if it is discovered by the Agency.  With so many entities to inspect, some companies think it is better to take this risk the violation is discovered than have their disclosure denied for a technical flaw and face an enforcement action.

Other companies may think the administrative costs of performing an audit are too high.  Or some may be under the mistaken belief that Ohio’s five year statute of limitations on environmental enforcement actions provides a better shield from penalties.  Just keep in mind that the trigger for the statute of limitations in R.C. §3745.31 is when the Agency "actually knew or was informed" of the violation.  So the Agency must be aware of the violation for the clock to run.

What are some of the reasons a request for coverage is denied?  The disclosure must be voluntary, which means it must not be required by some environmental law.  During my time at Ohio EPA, by far the most frequent reason a company was denied coverage was the disclosure of the violation was required by some other environmental law.  Of those companies denied coverage for this reason, most were Title V permitted sources under the Clean Air Act.   Title V sources are required to disclose violations as part of their permit terms and conditions.  However, even in these cases, the Agency frequently reduced penalties to reward the early disclosure of violations.

Here are additional requirements to be deemed a voluntary disclosure (See R.C.§3745.72(B)):

  1. Prompt disclosure
  2. Reasonable effort to achieve compliance as quickly as practicable
  3. Cooperate with the State Agency who is charged with investigating the disclosure
  4. Disclosure not required by law, prior litigation, or a prior order
  5. The company disclosing has no knowledge or reason to know of an Agency had previously commenced an investigation or enforcement action regarding the violations

What is involved in filing a disclosure to the appropriate state agency?  Unlike environmental permitting or grant applications, the submission to Ohio EPA to receive coverage under the Audit Privilege law is actually pretty minimal. R.C. §3745.72(C) requires that all disclosures must be in writing, dated, and hand delivered or sent by certified mail to the Director.  The written disclosure must include the following information: 

  1. the name, address, and telephone number of the owner or operator of the business making the disclosure;
  2. the name, title, address, and telephone number of one or more persons associated with

    the owner or operator who may be contacted regarding the disclosure;

  3. a brief summary of the alleged violation of environmental laws, including, without

    limitation, the nature, date, and location of the alleged violation to the extent that the

    information is known by the owner or operator; and

  4. a statement that the information is part of an environmental audit report and is being

    disclosed under R.C. §3745.72 in order to obtain the immunity provided by that section.

Are there good reasons to use Ohio’s Environmental Audit Privilege Law if it is renewed?  Yes.  During my tenure, I was not aware of any enforcement action that was pursued against a company that made a valid and voluntary disclosure.  Just make sure you are not required to report by some other environmental law. 

I think the law may be ideal for companies that recently purchased a new facility or company.  Performing an environmental audit after such an acquisition is an excellent way to ensure your house is order. 

Also, the audit is a good way to have a third party to evaluate your compliance status.  You can always choose to not file the disclosure if you think its not to your advantage for some reason.

In a prior post discussing the impact of the Supreme Court’s rulings limiting federal jurisdiction over waterways, I discussed how state’s may feel increasing pressure to fill the gaps in federal authority.  A recent article in the Boston Globe on diminished EPA enforcement suggests the states are probably dusting off their legal theories as we speak. The Globe reported the following: 

The Bush administration didn’t pursue hundreds of potential water pollution cases after a 2006 Supreme Court decision that restricted the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate seasonal streams and wetlands.

From July 2006 through December 2007 there were 304 instances where the EPA found what would have been violations of the Clean Water Act before the court’s ruling, according to a memo by the agency’s enforcement chief.

Two questions I have relative to this story.  First, does this foretell a strange trend where US EPA starts referring cases to the states for enforcement?  Second question- when will the battle shift to permitting?  It cannot be long before a company challenges federal authority to require an NPDES permit.  The most likely candidate in my mind will be something like the requirement to obtain a permit for construction activities.