EPA Increases Enforcement Activity to Protect Communities from Pollution

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced its 2023 enforcement and compliance results. It shows significant increases in on-site inspections, new criminal investigations, civil settlements, and cleanup enforcement, as well as record levels of enforcement activity in environmental justice communities long scarred by pollution.

In 2023, EPA moved decisively to focus their enforcement and compliance program on the nation’s most significant environmental threats and to increase efforts to hold all polluters accountable. David M. Uhlmann, Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance indicated:  “While our work is not complete, EPA’s revitalized enforcement program is making a positive difference in communities across America, particularly for people living in underserved and overburdened communities that for too long have borne the brunt of pollution. From helping ensure that our children can drink safe water to improving the air we all breathe, EPA is delivering on the promise of America’s environmental laws.”

The EPA set a goal to increase the percentage of annual on-site inspections in environmental justice communities from 30 to 55 percent by fiscal year (FY) 2026. In FY 2023, EPA surpassed that goal three years ahead of schedule, achieving 60% of onsite inspections in communities overburdened with pollution. More than half of its civil settlements were in those communities as well.

To better address the defining environmental threat of this time, climate change, EPA launched its “Climate Enforcement and Compliance Strategy” that directs all EPA enforcement and compliance offices to address climate change in criminal, civil, federal facilities, and cleanup enforcement actions. For the first time ever, the climate strategy requires EPA to pursue climate mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency whenever possible in its enforcement actions and compliance assurance programs.

Already, EPA is producing results from its efforts to revitalize its enforcement and compliance assurance programs:

  • More on-site inspections to protect communities from harmful pollution since before the pandemic, supplemented by more selective use of off-site compliance tools developed during the pandemic.
  • More civil case conclusions since 2018, which eliminated an estimated 1.21 billion pounds of pollutants, and required violators to pay over $708 million in penalties, fines, and restitution, a 57% over FY 2022.
  • More Superfund enforcement instruments since 2017, with 80% of those Superfund actions in EJ communities; and
  • More criminal investigations opened than in any year since 2015 (with the exception of FY 2020 when EPA confronted a surge of Covid-related fraud), resulting in a 70% percent increase over FY 2022.

EPA expects to increase its efforts to address 21st century environmental challenges and to strengthen its enforcement programs in FY 2024 and beyond. But in FY 2023, EPA sent an unmistakable message to the regulated community that EPA will work with its state partners to ensure that polluters are held accountable and that everyone living in the United States can breathe clean air and drink safe water.

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