The federal government’s monitor of toxic waste laws for California and three other states has received a scathing review in an agency audit, which says polluters and other violators “are not being punished.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office is setting penalties far too low, then reducing the amounts still further in settlements that violate national EPA policy, and allowing companies to make money by violating toxics laws, said the EPA’s inspector’s office in an audit made public this week.
It said federal law requires the EPA to determine how much money a company is making or saving by violating toxics laws, and to add that amount to the penalties as a non-negotiable item. But the regional office, by a “conscious management decision,” has neither calculated nor sought to recover violators’ economic benefits, the audit said.
In addition, most penalties in the two-year period studied were for only one day at a maximum rate of $25,000, even though violations may have lasted several months or longer, the audit said.
The audit found “an unwillingness by management to aggressively assess penalties,” and reported that “insufficient penalties can provide economic incentives to violators, delay compliance with regulatory requirements and adversely affect the deterrence goal” of EPA enforcement.
The audit was released after the San Jose Mercury News obtained a copy through the Freedom of Information Act.
The EPA’s Region IX office covers California, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and the Pacific Trust Territories.
Correction Under Way
In a formal response, Regional Administrator Dan McGovern said his staff is correcting several deficiencies, including the failure to explain settlements of cases or to routinely calculate violators’ economic benefits.
But McGovern said the audit overstated the dangers by using “worst-case scenarios.” He also said that nationwide statistics indicate that his office is above average in the penalties it assesses, a claim the inspector general’s office says it is studying.
The audit is the third by the inspector general in four years to criticize the regional office’s enforcement of the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The law, which requires management and monitoring of potentially hazardous wastes, carries penalties of up to $25,000 a day for violations.
But the audit said the penalties negotiated by the regional office ranged from $2,045 a day down to $14 a day.