The inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency has documented widespread failures by federal and local officials in several states to police even the most basic requirements of the nation's clean air and water laws.
In a series of new reports, the environmental agency's independent auditing arm found wastewater treatment plants operating with obsolete permits or with none at all, inspectors failing to visit and review factories and states falling short of federal goals.The reports blamed both federal and state officials for the shortcomings. Investigators found that state officials failed to enforce the laws and to report violations to the federal government, but they also found that federal officials were remiss in enforcing the law and in supervising the state authorities.
As part of a nationwide examination of environmental enforcement that began two years ago, senior EPA officials said, the reports point to problems that are probably not isolated in the relatively few states where audits were done. These states included Idaho, Alaska, New Mexico, Missouri and Washington.
Most states may be enforcing the laws most of the time, the officials said, but the sampling probably uncovered conditions that exist to varying degrees all over the country.
In the reviews, investigators looked at two types of pollution: emissions into the air from operations regulated under the Clean Air Act, like factory boilers, and discharges into the water from operations regulated under the Clean Water Act, like wastewater outlets.
Their goal was to determine whether inspections were being conducted, permits obeyed and violations reported according to longstanding federal regulations.
Officials said the reports raised questions about the dedication of the states to enforcing pollution laws and the capabilities of federal and state workers to keep up with the millions of specific pollution-control requirements that are intended to govern emissions from thousands of factories and treatment plants.
"Do we know what is going on out there?" one senior enforcement official at the agency asked. "And when we do, are we taking the steps to bring people into compliance? And are we setting the right priorities?"