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December 19, 2012
Environmental enforcement 2012

EPA’s 2012 enforcement report is notable for a dramatic spike over 2011 in the number of inspections of energy extraction facilities, primarily those involved in natural gas production.  In 2012, the Agency initiated a total of 870 inspections/evaluations of these facilities, compared with 361 actions taken in 2011.  The number of concluded enforcement actions has not changed as significantly, with 53 in 2012, compared with 43 in 2011. 

The Agency says it recognizes the importance of natural gas as a cleaner burning “bridge fuel” in the search for new forms and sources of energy.  “However, some techniques for natural gas extraction pose a significant risk to public health and the environment,” states the EPA.  Federal regulations typically require air and water permits for energy extraction and require that companies develop and implement programs to detect and repair leaks of hazardous pollutants.  The vast majority of inspections of energy extraction facilities are occurring in the Appalachian and Northern Rocky Mountain states and Texas. 


In summarizing its 2012 enforcement accomplishments, the EPA notes that “sustained and focused attention” on drinking water standards combined with state and local cooperation has reduced serious violations by more than 60 percent in the past 3 years. 

There has also been an emphasis on controlling municipal combined sewer overflows and other municipal wastewater problems that result in the discharge of raw sewage and contaminated runoff into surface waters.  For 2011–2012, the Agency addressed or initiated enforcement against 332 large combined sewer systems with untreated sewage overflows, compared with a total of 140 such actions during the previous 12 years.  In 2012, the EPA also began to take action against sanitary sewer systems with untreated sewage overflows.  Over 870 actions in this area were taken in 2012, compared with no reported activity between 1998 and 2011. 


The Agency provided a detailed breakdown of inspection and enforcement actions involving the largest sources of air pollution.  Data were specifically reported for coal-fired electric utility units and acid, glass, and cement plants.  For example, for 2012, the EPA reported that 34 cement facilities were controlled, out of a “universe” of 108 facilities; this compares with 21 facilities that were found controlled in 2011.  Controlled means Clean Air Act New Source Review (NSR) pollution control requirements were resolved by a settlement or court judgment or that significant NOx and SO2 controls are already in place. 

As part of its environmental justice programs, the Agency has also increased inclusion of fence-line monitoring in enforcement settlements, whereby facilities commit to monitoring their air emissions and making these data publicly available, “ensuring that local residents have access to critical information about pollution that may be affecting their community.”

Significant progress was also reported on investigating sources of hazardous air pollutants.  For years, the Agency has listed violations of flaring requirements at refineries as an enforcement priority.  Related concerns are leaking equipment at refineries and chemical and industrial facilities and alleged underreporting of HAP emissions.  In fact, the EPA reported fewer “evaluations” of HAP facilities—393 in 2012, compared with 431 in 2011—but an increase in enforcement actions from 79 to 129.

Other areas of priority enforcement addressed by the EPA include concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and hazardous waste and water pollution associated with mineral processing operations.

Click here to read the data on EPA’s 2012 enforcement efforts.

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