EPA Enforcement Chief Calls for Strengthened Environmental Justice through Cleanup Enforcement

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EPA Enforcement Chief Calls for Strengthened Environmental Justice through Cleanup Enforcement

By: George Colvin, CPG, CHMM

Through a July 1, 2021 memo, Lawrence Starfield, Acting Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance (OECA) identified steps to be used in strengthening environmental justice (EJ) through cleanup enforcement actions.  EPA defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

The memo to Office of Site Remediation Enforcement Managers, Regional Superfund Division Directors and Deputies, and Regional Counsels and Deputies follows EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s April 7, 2021 commitment to environmental justice and calls for EPA employees to “strengthen enforcement of environmental violations” in communities disproportionately impacted by adverse health and environmental effects.  The April 7 commitment to environmental justice was one of a series of separate written messages to EPA employees regarding transparency and maintaining the public trust.  

The July 1 memo notes that EPA uses mapping and screening tools, including the online EJSCREEN tool, in combination with local knowledge to help identify overburdened communities and uses its authority under CERCLA and RCRA to hold responsible parties accountable for releases or threatened releases of hazardous substances or waste that impact communities and harm the environment.   The memo identifies five approaches to be used in advancing EPA’s environmental justice goals within the cleanup provisions of CERCLA and RCRA.  The approaches include:

  • Requiring responsible parties to take early cleanup actions
  • Ensuring prompt cleanup actions by responsible parties
  • Use of more robust enforcement instruments
  • Increased oversight of enforcement instruments
  • Building trust and capacity through community engagement

For each approach, the memo provides one or more actions. For example, under the “requiring responsible parties to take early cleanup actions” approach, the memo proposes empowering EPA regions to use CERCLA Section 106(a) and RCRA Section 7003 authorities, in conjunction with other regulatory programs to proactively address potential releases.

Seven actions are proposed for the “ensuring prompt cleanup by responsible parties” approach, four of which are:

  • Continue to expedite remedial design/remedial action (RD/RA) negotiations, elevate the focus on completing negotiations within one year, and bifurcate RD and RA where needed to achieve this goal
  • Require earlier involvement by the Office of Regional Counsel when potentially responsible parties (PRPs) request extensions of deadlines, miss deadlines, or are out of compliance.
  • Utilize unilateral administrative orders (UAOs) to compel PRPs to perform response actions and/or provide resources when negotiations fail or do not result in a timely settlement.
  • Review PRP-lead sites designated as “human exposure not under control” to determine if enforcement actions can effectively reduce human exposure.

Installation of advanced monitoring equipment to demonstrate compliance with remedial action objectives and the sharing of data with the public is proposed as a possible action to support the Use of More Robust Enforcement Instruments approach.

Published in the August 2021 Focus on the Environment.

George H. Colvin is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of consulting experience. Much of his experience has focused on RCRA Corrective Action, RCRA closure, and groundwater investigation, monitoring, and cleanup. He holds a BS in Geology from Ohio University and MS in geology and hydrology from Vanderbilt University. He is a Certified Professional Geologist with the American Institute of Professional Geologists, a registered geologist in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and a Certified Hazardous Materials Manager.