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GAO: EPA lacks plan for “Next Generation Compliance”

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A new report out from the Government Accountability Office says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lacks a strategic plan to implement a new enforcement and compliance initiative.

Next Generation Compliance refers to an initiative the EPA initiated to address issues with substantial noncompliance with environmental regulations. The proposed initiative would measure emissions and pollutants electronically to increase the efficiency of enforcement action.

According to the GAO report, the EPA has compiled some documents on the initiative, but those are only "general in nature." Additionally, the GAO report states, the EPA "has not developed a strategic plan" for implementing Next Generation Compliance.

"GAO has previously reported that strategic planning for activities below the agency wide level is a leading practice for successful agencies," the report states. "EPA acknowledges the need for an overall plan for Next Generation Compliance. Developing a plan that incorporates selected leading practices for federal strategic planning could help EPA more effectively integrate Next Generation Compliance into its enforcement and compliance program and promote greater public transparency."

The EPA has already formed and electronic reporting task force in December 2011, established a working group to study advanced emissions reporting technologies and new compliance tools and increased publicly available compliance and enforcement activity.

The goal is to increase the EPA's ability is to better monitor violations of environmental restrictions. The EPA itself has acknowledged that substantial violations go undetected.

"For example, 2010 EPA data (the most recently available data) indicate that 45 percent of certain entities subject to effluent limits through EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program have reported violations," the report states.

The Next Generation Compliance initiative itself is still in its infancy. If it is successful, the agency will rely less on inspecting one facility at a time and more ongoing monitoring using advances in information technology.

"For example, according to EPA documents, EPA anticipates that advanced emissions and pollutants monitoring equipment, such as infrared cameras that could detect emission leaks and fence-line monitoring equipment that could provide emissions monitoring around the perimeter of an entity, will be used to identify violations and promote compliance," the GAO report states.

In a written response by the EPA published with the GAO report, the agency agreed with the GAO findings of a need for a strategic plan. When that plan will come out is not yet clear.

"A senior EPA official responsible for coordinating the Next Generation Compliance initiative told us that EPA recognizes the need for a strategic plan for the initiative and expects to prepare one in fiscal year 2013, but he could not provide a specific time frame for either starting or completing the plan," the report states.