California Environmental, Public Health Laws Inconsistently Enforced, New Report Finds

Reforms needed to protect public from air and water pollution and other violations, says NRDC
SAN FRANCISCO (October 7, 2008) – Californians may not be able to rely on law enforcement for protection from pollution, health, and safety violations, according to a new report released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The report found that the state’s leadership role in developing environment and public health protections may be undermined by a decentralized law enforcement structure, apparent violation “hotspots,” and uneven oversight by some enforcement authorities.
“Just as speeding drivers are not deterred by a speed limit that police do not enforce, some polluters will ignore environmental limits that can be violated with impunity,” said Michael Wall, NRDC senior attorney and lead author of the report. “All Californians have a right to expect that the health, safety, and environmental laws designed to protect them will be obeyed and enforced, no matter where they live and no matter which agency is charged with enforcing them.”
The report, “An Uneven Shield: The Record of Enforcement and Violations Under California’s Environmental, Health, and Workplace Safety Laws,” assessed multi-year data on known violations and law enforcement responses within six California regulatory areas: water pollution, hazardous waste management, drinking water, air pollution, agricultural pesticide use, and workplace safety and health. The report found that decentralized authority, major data gaps and poor recordkeeping by some enforcement authorities made it difficult for either policymakers or the public to determine the rate at which violations were occurring or the extent of enforcement responses.   However, during the period analyzed, reported violation rates and enforcement activity varied dramatically by program, region, and enforcement authority. 
Under some programs, known violators frequently got off without a penalty. In 2004, for example, there were 3,799 cases of facilities violating the state’s water pollution laws, yet there was no enforcement reported for nearly a quarter of these facilities. In the same year, 2,165 inspections identified violations of agricultural pesticide use laws, yet more than half of these violations were not penalized or subject to other formal enforcement action. The report also found enforcement to vary widely between geographic regions: in 2005, enforcement action was taken against nearly all wastewater violations in the Colorado River Basin Region, while only about 30 percent of wastewater violations in the Los Angeles Region were enforced.
“Those who do not comply with environmental, health and workplace safety standards are putting all Californians and our environment at risk. They must be held accountable for breaking the law,” said Wall.
NRDC concluded that broad reforms will be required to ensure the promise of our environmental, health and safety laws. Gov. Schwarzenegger has acknowledged that environmental protection requires strict law enforcement, and Cal/EPA has already launched an enforcement reform effort; the report noted, however, that Cal/EPA’s jurisdiction is limited and its power constrained by existing laws and resources.
The NRDC report recommended the following:
  • Adequate funding of enforcement is essential at all levels of government;
  • Allow the people most directly harmed by pollution to enforce the law if regulators fail to act;
  • Require enforcement authorities to report complete, accurate and timely data on violations so that hotspots can be identified and corrected;
  • Remove institutional barriers to timely and effective enforcement;
  • Increase penalty assessments to deter illegal conduct; and
  • Set clear enforcement standards and measure all enforcement authorities’ results.
The full report is available at: