Citizen Health & Safety
Expected Budget Cuts Prompt EPA to Reduce Performance Targets in Five-Year Strategic Plan
by Katie Weatherford, 4/22/2014
Just over one year ago, a fertilizer facility in West, TX exploded, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds more. In January, approximately 10,000 gallons of toxic chemicals leaked from a storage tank at a Freedom Industries facility in Charleston, WV into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water supply of over 300,000 nearby residents. And in February, thousands of gallons of coal ash spilled from unlined ponds at Duke Energy's coal plant into the Dan River in North Carolina. More environmental incidents like these are happening regularly, risking the public's health and the environment. We need stronger national standards for toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, and these standards need to be enforced. But the federal agency charged with issuing and enforcing national environmental standards, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been subjected to significant budget cuts over the past several years that have restricted its ability to carry out its mission.
The impact of these cuts on the agency's future operations are reflected in EPA's Strategic Plan for FY 2014-2018, released on April 10, which sets weak performance measures for tracking the agency's progress toward its primary objectives over the next five years. The Center for Effective Government had previously submitted comments to EPA on the draft version of the Strategic Plan, calling on the agency to adopt more ambitious performance targets.
EPA's 2014-2018 Strategic Plan
EPA's Strategic Plan for fiscal years 2014 to 2018 focuses on achieving five cross-cutting goals:
- Addressing Climate Change and Improving Air Quality;
- Protecting America's Waters;
- Cleaning up Communities and Advancing Sustainable Development;
- Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution; and
- Protecting Human Health and the Environment by Enforcing Laws and Assuring Compliance
Goal 1: Addressing Climate Change and Improving Air Quality
EPA's Strategic Plan emphasizes the need to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from mobile and stationary sources and discusses efforts to develop and implement climate adaptation plans. For 2014-2015, EPA will work in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation to pass the second phase of fuel economy standards. Additionally, over the next five years, EPA plans to improve air quality, restore and protect the upper-atmosphere ozone layer, and reduce radiation exposure.
Other goals EPA should prioritize include the completion of greenhouse gas emissions limits for existing power plants by 2015, in accordance with the president's Climate Action Plan, and finalizing a review of the national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for ozone by 2015. The scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that the current standard should be strengthened to protect public health and the environment. Completing this long-delayed review within the next two years will allow EPA to move forward with implementing a more protective ozone air quality standard.
Goal 2: Protecting America's Waters
EPA commits itself to meeting and maintaining water quality and drinking water standards that will ensure public health, fish, shellfish, and recreational waters are protected. The plan also pledges to maintain the quality of our nation's water bodies, water resources, and ecosystems, but fails to lay out other priorities or to set measures for each objective.
Of particular concern is EPA's plan to protect drinking water resources by "address[ing] chemicals and contaminants by group, as opposed to working on a chemical-by-chemical basis." EPA has not indicated how it will implement this new approach or how many chemical contaminant groups it intends to address, so how it will track its progress is unclear.
Goal 3: Cleaning up Communities and Advancing Sustainable Development
Despite the important objectives outlined in the plan, the substantial reduction in performance targets compared to previous years is concerning. EPA plans to cut inspections of risk management plan (RMP) facilities over the next five years from an average of 570 inspections a year to only 460 inspections per year – a reduction of almost 10 percent. One year after the explosion of a fertilizer facility in West, TX, EPA should be working to conduct more, not fewer, inspections.
Goal 4: Ensuring the Safety of Chemicals and Preventing Pollution
EPA plans to reduce human exposure to harmful chemicals by promoting safer alternatives. It also plans to promote the conservation and protection of natural resources by assessing the human health and environmental risks of over 250 pesticides and other chemicals in commerce in 2014-15.
However, the plan would be much stronger if the agency had included a baseline for assessing progress. For instance, if EPA considers the creation of human health benchmark values for 363 pesticides in drinking water as "assessments" for purposes of this goal, then the target has already been achieved. Similarly, although the agency says it will assess whether a chemical is an endocrine disruptor for all chemicals for which complete data is available by the end of 2017, the plan does not include an estimate of the number of chemicals for which there will be completed data.
EPA's plan could be enhanced by making a commitment to finalizing risk assessments for many of the chemicals identified in the 2012 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) work plan. EPA should also prioritize the completion of assessments for previously identified flame retardants and certain other chemicals included in the 2013 TSCA work plan.
Goal 5: Protecting Human Health and the Environment by Enforcing Laws and Assuring Compliance
The fifth goal outlined in EPA's Strategic Plan focuses on inspection and enforcement. Over the next five years, EPA plans to target only the largest environmental violations, conducting fewer inspections and initiating fewer enforcement cases than in past years. EPA's justification for this dramatic reduction in compliance and enforcement relies on the purported (and untested) benefits thought to come from electronic monitoring in its "Next Generation" (NextGen) compliance program. Although NextGen has the potential to provide innovative approaches for ensuring compliance, these approaches – especially voluntary reporting and compliance – should not be viewed as substitutes for traditional inspection and enforcement activities. NextGen compliance approaches depend on receiving complete, accurate data from regulated entities and states.
As shown in the table below, the plan suggests EPA will conduct 15,000 inspections and evaluations each year between 2014 and 2018, compared to the annual average of 21,000 inspections and evaluations completed between 2005 and 2009. In 2012, EPA conducted 19,835 inspections and evaluations.
The substantial reduction in compliance and enforcement is the most troubling part of the entire EPA plan, as on-the-ground inspections and enforcement actions are the only proven strategies for enforcing our nation's environmental laws. By conducting thousands fewer inspections and evaluations each year, EPA will not be able to boost compliance rates; they could regress and undermine decades of gains in environmental quality and compliance assurance.
The plan would also reduce the number of judicial and civil enforcement actions the agency initiates and concludes each year. Between 2014 and 2018, EPA will initiate 2,800 and complete 2,720 cases annually instead of the average of 3,900 cases initiated and 3,800 cases it concluded each year in 2005-2009.
Table 1. Comparison of EPA's Strategic Measures
for Inspections and Enforcement Actions
|Strategic Measure||2005-2009 Baseline||2012||2013||Draft Plan 2014-2018||Final Plan 2014-2018||Recommended Target|
|Average Annual No. of Inspections and Evaluations||21,000||20,000||18,000||14,000||15,800||20,000|
|Average Annual No. of Initiated Enforcement Cases||3,900||3,000||2,400||2,320||2,800||3,000|
|Average Annual No. of Concluded Enforcement Cases||3,800||3,000||2,500||2,000||2,720||3,000|
As a result of these reductions in inspection and enforcement activities over the next five years, the agency has lowered its performance targets for reducing pollutants. EPA expects to achieve waste reductions of 2.9 billion pounds annually between 2014 and 2018. Although this is greater than what EPA achieved in 2013, it is substantially lower than the 6.5 billion pounds of waste reduced in 2008 and the 4.4 billion pounds of waste reduced in 2012.
Moreover, EPA's final plan only estimates toxic and pesticide pollutant reductions of 2.8 million pounds per year between 2014 and 2018. Between 2005 and 2008, EPA achieved an annual average reduction of 3.8 million pounds, and in 2013, EPA achieved much higher reductions – approximately 4.6 million pounds. Further, the plan estimates a reduction in water pollutants by 256 million pounds per year between 2014 and 2018. In 2012, EPA reduced water pollutants by 500 million pounds, and in 2013, EPA achieved reductions totaling 660 million pounds.
EPA's Strategic Plan for 2014-2018 outlines five forward-looking goals, but more ambitious performance measures related to each of these goals are needed to ensure public health and the environment are adequately protected over the next five years. Additionally, the significant reduction in inspection and enforcement targets sends a message that EPA is scaling back its enforcement presence on the ground. To enhance environmental safeguards and prevent avoidable disasters like the ones in West, TX; Charleston, WV; and Eden, NC, Congress must designate adequate levels of funding to EPA so the agency has the resources it needs to fulfill its critical mission.