August 30, 2023

What You Need to Know About U.S. EPA’s New Federal Enforcement Priorities

At a Glance

  • Six priority areas have been identified as National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives for 2024-2027: mitigating climate change, addressing exposure to PFAS, protecting communities from coal ash contamination, reducing air toxics in overburdened communities, increasing compliance with drinking water standards, and chemical accident risk reduction.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced its federal enforcement priorities for 2024 to 2027. U.S. EPA selects its National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives every four years to prioritize resources for what it sees as the most serious and widespread environmental problems facing the United States. This announcement comes on the heels of the long-awaited confirmation of U.S. EPA’s assistant administrator within the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, a former federal prosecutor who has pledged to “hold polluters accountable when they break the law.”

The 2024-2027 National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives (NECIs) are, in U.S. EPA’s own words:

  1. Mitigating Climate Change (new)
  2. Addressing Exposure to Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) (new)
  3. Protecting Communities from Coal Ash Contamination (new)
  4. Reducing Air Toxics in Overburdened Communities (modified)
  5. Increasing Compliance With Drinking Water Standards (continued)
  6. Chemical Accident Risk Reduction (continued)

Consistent with its theme of protecting disadvantaged communities, U.S. EPA emphasized that it will integrate environmental justice considerations into each of its NECIs.

Of particular interest, the 2024-2027 NECIs mark the first time that U.S. EPA has set initiatives focusing on mitigating climate change, PFAS and coal ash. In its announcement, U.S. EPA acknowledged that these new initiatives harken back to what it calls “21st century environmental problems,” but implementation will build on the agency’s existing regulatory framework, including its state partnerships.

On the climate change front, U.S. EPA introduced a particular focus on methane emissions from oil and gas facilities and landfills, and the use, importation and production of hydrofluorocarbons that, according to U.S. EPA, “has documented widespread noncompliance.” The interest in compliance is aligned with new regulations coming out of U.S. EPA on methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry and American Innovation and Manufacturing (AIM) Act.

Although U.S. EPA was expected to include PFAS as an initiative, its focus on holding “responsible those who manufactured PFAS and/or used PFAS in the manufacturing process” drew some attention as U.S. EPA indicated that it will not intend to pursue categories of responsible parties where “equitable factors” may not support liability.

Meanwhile, U.S. EPA will continue its ongoing (or modified) initiatives of reducing air toxics, assuring compliance with drinking water standards and reducing chemical accident risks. Chemicals issues (outside of PFAS) continue to generate extensive interest by U.S. EPA as U.S. EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan consistently highlights concerns with emissions into the air and water as part of his ongoing Journey to Justice tour across the United States.

In contrast to prior U.S. EPA announcements, these initiatives potentially signal a diminished emphasis on stopping aftermarket defeat devices for vehicles and engines and reducing significant noncompliance with wastewater violations under the Clean Water Act.

Industries within the scope of these initiatives can expect stepped up enforcement, both formal and informal, and an increased frequency in inspections. Given that U.S. EPA’s budget is at the highest levels in a decade, it might just have the resources to follow through. The agency hopes to increase compliance with existing standards by targeting facilities that it believes currently pose significant threats to public health, particularly in overburdened communities.

Conclusion

U.S. EPA has set its 2024-2027 National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives, focusing on forward-looking environmental issues as well as the ongoing effort to address and incorporate environmental justice concerns and the needs of overburdened communities. The agency anticipates the use of the full range of its enforcement and compliance efforts to implement these initiatives nationwide. Facilities that might be in the crosshairs of these initiatives should take note.

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