EPA wants changes in La. DEQ



Agency threatens to strip state of enforcement duty

February 16, 2003
Advocate reporter Amy Wold

Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality will no longer be allowed to oversee pollution enforcement if the agency does not agree to major changes by the end of next month, federal regulators said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rarely uses such threats to force better enforcement from states. However, a series of EPA inspector general reports in the past two years have been critical of both the state DEQ and the EPA's oversight of the agency.

Letters sent Friday to Gov. Mike Foster by EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman demand that Louisiana focus more on punishment and less on incentives to reduce the pollution industries release into Louisiana's air, rivers and streams.

The EPA wants the state to begin wringing fines from polluters immediately instead of giving them years to comply or to implement environmentally friendly alternatives, such as building wetlands.

EPA officials said they want more aggressive measures than those recommended this year by a Foster task force. "We've discussed these performance measures with senior officials of LDEQ, and they agree that the measures are achievable within the time-frames," the letter says.

Although the agency has concerns, the letter said EPA is "encouraged" by the efforts of a task force the state created to review DEQ's operations. Foster formed the 29-member task force to look at DEQ's funding and efficiency last year in response to criticism from the Legislative Auditor's Office and concern about a fee increase.

The task force includes representatives from industry, state agencies, civic organizations and environmental groups. Its final recommendations are due to the Governor's Office on March 1.

Many of the changes demanded by EPA were advocated by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network and the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, which have asked the EPA to take over enforcement of federal water pollution, air pollution and hazardous waste programs.

DEQ Secretary Hall Bohlinger said that EPA's "performance measures" would change the culture of environmental enforcement in the state, but he said he expects Foster to agree to the EPA demands.

"These are things we feel should be done, and we didn't object," Bohlinger said. Many of the rule changes DEQ would adopt would apply to the air and hazardous waste programs, he said.

The measures required by the EPA include:

A commitment to dramatically reducing DEQ's backlog of water permits for major pollution sources within a year, and for minor pollution sources within two years. The state is behind in issuing renewals and new permits for 38 percent of its major permits and 49 percent of its minor permits.

Changes in state rules to make sure companies violating water quality rules don't make money from doing so. In the past, DEQ did not always try to find out how industries profited from breaking pollution regulations. Now, fines must attempt to recoup those profits.

Limits on letting companies substitute environmental improvement projects for the payment of fines. Environmental groups have complained that some companies were allowed to construct changes in their pollution control equipment that might be required under the law, or build wetlands restoration projects, instead of paying hefty fines.

An agreement to complete enforcement actions by taking violators to court or completing administrative appeals within one to two years. An audit last year by former Legislative Auditor Dan Kyle charged that many cases never were taken to court, or were delayed for years.

Mary Lee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, called the EPA action a step in the right direction.

"They appear to be putting measurable goals for the Louisiana DEQ to improve their protection of our valuable water resources and public health," she said.

http://www.theadvocate.com/stories/021603/new_epa001.shtml



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