From The Editor | December 5, 2014

Size Matters At EPA


By Kevin Westerling,

The U.S. EPA seems to have a size issue. The agency plays a tremendously important role in protecting the environment and has a strong historical track record, but the scope of the job, coupled with the agency’s own ambitions, has progressed to the point that the EPA may be too small to get the job done effectively.

Some may scoff at that notion, seeing the EPA as another bloated government entity plagued by inefficiencies and decisions made from ivory towers — essentially, the typical arguments against “big government.” That perception is not without some merit; I’m certain there are countless frustrations among water and wastewater professionals at every level, pointing to policies and procedures that don’t work on a practical level. “Get out of the way,” is the rallying cry.

I would argue, however, that the EPA needs to be more present than ever considering the escalating threats to water quality and supply such as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), climate change, and a host of contaminants emerging from agricultural and industrial processes.

Despite being shorthanded and missing goals, the EPA hasn’t slowed its ambition. In fact, the agency is taking on more responsibilities.

The recent and still-surging growth of fracking has overwhelmed the EPA, according to the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO). In a June 2014 report, the GAO concluded that “[the] EPA is not consistently conducting [key] oversight and enforcement activities for class II programs” — a class that includes fracking wells. The report further stated that “[the] EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations as directed in guidance because, according to some EPA officials, the agency does not have the resources to do so.”

The GAO also criticized the EPA in a September 2014 report on the lax handling of hazardous chemical discharges. The EPA hasn’t updated its list of regulated “priority pollutants” since 1981; meanwhile, a cocktail of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and other byproducts of industrial manufacturing has been passed unchecked through wastewater treatment plants and into waterways. As with fracking, the GAO cites a lack of resources as the reason.

EPA Agenda
Despite being shorthanded and missing goals, the EPA hasn’t slowed its ambition. In fact, the agency is taking on more responsibilities.

One of the latest (and most controversial) initiatives is the expansion of the “Waters of the United States” that fall under EPA’s jurisdiction. The EPA wants to regulate more waterways, much to the dismay of many farmers, businesses, and residential landowners. Critics call it overreach, while the EPA claims expansion is necessary to maintain and improve water quality. Overreach or not, it is still the EPA trying to do more when the GAO says it is already undermanned.

The EPA also recently finalized its Climate Change Adaptation Plan, published on October 31, 2014, which details 10 agency-wide priorities to be implemented for new projects across the nation, designed to ensure “adaptive capacity” — readiness and resiliency — in preparation for climate change impacts. Part of that task is the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the implementation plan to be developed by each EPA program (e.g., Office of Water), regional office, and partner. To me, it sounds like yet another labor-intensive endeavor.

Consider these factors together, and it appears the EPA is not too big at all but rather too small. Granted, the agency may be able to handle all of its chores by improving efficiency and changing procedures — in so doing, perhaps curtailing some “big government” characteristics and complaints — but in the absence of such changes, growing environmental threats and EPA initiatives seem to suggest that the EPA is destined to fall short of its lofty goals.