The Environmental Protection Agency is ramping up its efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act and to hold violators more accountable. Environmental groups and many Democratic lawmakers applaud the plan, noting that CWA enforcement eased during the Bush administration. But industry groups caution that simply increasing the number of citations and using a “one-size-fits-all” approach could prove counterproductive and might not lead to the common goal of better water quality.

EPA aims at big polluters.
EPA aims at big polluters.

At an Oct. 15 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson outlined an “action plan” to improve compliance and enforcement. “We are falling short of this administration’s expectations for the effectiveness of our clean-water enforcement programs,” she said. One out of every four of the largest Clean Water Act dischargers had significant violations in 2008, she said.

“We are falling short of this administration’s expectations”

EPA’s plan in its present form is just an outline and short on detail. It calls for revamping the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit program to target “the most serious violations and the most significant sources,” Jackson said. Some of the biggest polluters are municipal wastewater facilities and storm sewer systems, concentrated animal feeding operations and construction sites, EPA says. The agency plans to strengthen oversight of state permitting and enforcement programs and wants to take more of a lead in developing better data-gathering tools, including an electronic reporting system. Susan Asmus, National Association of Home Builders’ vice president for advocacy, says, “I think it was a really good idea for EPA to take a look at its enforcement program.” However, as the plan now stands, “It’s hard to tell how it might impact our industry,” she says.

Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) called on ackson to step up enforcement. He said if dischargers are allowed to violate permits with little risk of penalty, “the tools are not being used in an efficient manner.” But some committee Republicans said EPA should seek to resolve water-quality violations through compliance assistance. “Only when compliance assistance does not resolve the violation, the agency and the states should then move toward more formal enforcement actions,” said John Boozman (R-Ark.).

Targets enforcement of most serious violations and most significant sources
Strengthens oversight of state permitting and enforcement programs
Increases transparency and accountability of EPA compliance and enforcement

Industry sources say that, although they support targeted enforcement, EPA should take into consideration the lack of resources available to fund improvements to municipal sewer and wastewater systems. Susan Bruninga, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ public affairs director, says cash-strapped jurisdictions often are forced to spend large amounts of local ratepayers’ funds on enforcement requirements for infrastructure that do not result in “an actual net water-quality benefit.” Eben Wyman, National Utility Contractors Association vice president for government affairs, adds, “Many unlawful discharges are not by choice but because the infrastructure cannot sustain the wastewater.”