Can More Environmental Violations Actually Be a Good Thing?

May 29, 2014

"Our inspections are finding more violations. We are getting more bang for the buck."
Macky McCleary

The Council on Environmental Quality issued its annual report on state environmental data on Wednesday, and one number seems to be at the center of some questions: 72.

That's referring to a 72 percent compliance rate with state environmental law. What does that number mean? According to the council, more than one in four inspected facilities in the state were found to be violating state environmental policies in 2013. For comparison, in 2008, that number was one in ten.

Karl Wagener, the CEQ's executive director, said the issue is the result of fewer inspectors, and more targeted inspections at the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection -- realities he said could embolden industries not under scrutiny to break laws. "Some council members think it's analogous to when you're driving on the highway," Wagener said. "You know there aren't any police around. You're tempted to speed a little bit more."

DEEP officials view that 72 percent compliance rate another way. "We're actually very excited about this number," said Macky McCleary, DEEP's Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Quality. "What this means to us is that our inspections are finding more violations. While that might sound a little scary, what it fundamentally means is we are getting more bang for the buck."

McCleary said DEEP is getting more efficient, using fewer inspectors to scrutinize new areas like radiation compliance. The result? More citations.

The CEQ report says those citations often come without financial penalties, which could mean violators risk little by delaying compliance until a violation notice shows up.

McCleary said fines aren't always the answer. "In some cases, teeth -- or the stick -- is not the right tool. The carrot is a better tool. It's not all cases. I think there is an opportunity potentially to think about this in a more sophisticated segmentation, which would have more teeth in some of the initial interactions," McCLeary said. "But I think I just want to make it clear that always having more teeth is not always the best way to go about getting people into compliance."

Overall, DEEP conducted nearly 4,000 inspections in 2013.