Giving ‘Upper Hand to Corporate Polluters,’ EPA Drops Surprise Inspections

The agency “is just chucking aside any flimsy pretense that they care about upholding environmental laws, enforcing against big polluters, or protecting Americans,” says one observer.

By Andrea Germanos, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 7-19-2019

Xcel Energy’s Sherburne County (Sherco) Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, near Becker, Minnesota. Photo: Tony Webster/Wikimedia/CC

President Donald Trump’s EPA is provoking criticism once again, this time over a new “no surprises” policy stopping unannounced visits to power, chemical, and waste facilities.

“The Trump @EPA is just chucking aside any flimsy pretense that they care about upholding environmental laws, enforcing against big polluters, or protecting Americans,” tweeted John Walke, Clean Air Director and senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Giving a courtesy heads up to suspected *ongoing* lawbreakers is beyond the pale even for the Trump @EPA.”

Watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) publicized the development in a press statement on Thursday. It cites a memo, dated July 11, 2019, to regional administrators from Susan Bodine, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

Her office, according to the EPA site, “goes after pollution problems that impact American communities through vigorous civil and criminal enforcement. Our enforcement activities target the most serious water, air, and chemical hazards. ” Bodine’s memo says “EPA aims to enhance its partnerships with its state, local, and tribal co-regulators by more effectively carrying out our shared responsibilities under environmental laws.”

The “no surprises” approach, it continues, is “the foundation of joint work planning and will minimize the misunderstand­ings that can be caused by the lack of regular, bilateral communication.”

“EPA regions and the states should work together to identify which inspections the EPA or a state will perform,” it says.

The memo adds that “inspection planning will avoid duplicate efforts, improve efficiency, reduce unnecessary burdens on the regulated community, and could provide EPA regions and states with more flexibility in setting and adjusting inspection targets and Compliance Monitoring Strategies.”

Among “best practices” to be followed are for EPA regions to “provide states with advance notice of inspections.”

Regions and states, the memo adds, should also “consider the use of alternative compliance monitoring strategies.”

There should be a joint effort by EPA and states about whether possible “enforcement actions should be federal, state, or joint,” and, if any such action is deemed warranted, EPA should first notify the state before the facility in question, the memo says.

PEER, in its statement, rebuked the administration for the move, which it said would likely undermine the mission of protecting the environment. The group also pointed to its finding earlier this month that criminal pollution enforcement under Trump’s EPA is at record low levels.

“Taking the element of surprise away from inspections decreases their effectiveness, for obvious reasons,” stated PEER executive director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney. “I fear that EPA’s ‘no surprises’ posture masks a ‘see no evil’ approach to corporate polluters.”

“Basing enforcement on inter-agency consensus places politics above pollution control,” added Whitehouse. “Nobody opposes cooperation or supports duplication, but this policy risks environmental protection by giving the upper hand to corporate polluters and states that don’t want to enforce environmental laws.”

Esquire‘s Charles Pierce put the potential impact of the change in stark terms.

“If it were up to me,” he wrote, “I’d want the people who own power plants and chemical factories to wake up every morning in cold dread that someone from the Environmental Protection Agency might drop buy to see what corners we’ve been cutting recently. That way, I suspect, fertilizer plants would be less likely to blow up and take entire towns with them.”

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