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Inspector General to review EPA's 'Watch Lists'

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A chemical plant looms behind a swing set in Houston.

Pat Sullivan/AP

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general has begun a review of the EPA’s use of internal watch lists to target enforcement of federal pollution laws. The watch lists first came to light as part of a 2011 investigation by The Center for Public Integrity and NPR.

The inspector general is exploring “potential improvements in the protection of human health and the environment by ensuring the EPA is enforcing environmental laws and cleaning up communities,” the IG’s office wrote last month to Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.

The watch lists include allegedly chronic violators of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs the handling of hazardous waste.

The EPA began to post the previously secret lists online in the fall of 2011 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Center as part of the “Poisoned Places” investigation.

The project revealed that – two decades after Congress sought to crack down on chemicals that can cause cancer, brain damage and other ailments – toxic air pollutants continued to plague parts of the United States. The reports found that there were some 1,600 “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act – nearly 400 of which were on the EPA’s watch list – and that federal and state regulators sometimes had trouble keeping tabs on oil refineries, power plants, steel mills and other industrial facilities that showered communities with contaminants.

In several recent reports, the EPA IG has raised questions about the agency’s enforcement practices. In 2009, the inspector general found that “in many instances EPA and States are not addressing high priority violations … in a timely manner.” A 2011 report concluded that “EPA does not administer a consistent national enforcement program” and that state enforcement programs – which the EPA oversees – are “underperforming.”

Now, the IG is exploring how effectively the EPA is using the polluter watch lists.

Asked to respond Tuesday, the EPA sent an emailed statement to the Center saying only that it is “aware of the Inspector General's Annual Plan and looks forward to cooperating fully with its review of the EPA Watch List.”

Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an advocacy group in Falls Church, Va., said the EPA too often defers to states on enforcement matters – a recipe for inaction.

“In a state like New York that’s not such a bad deal, because New York is more aggressive,” said Gibbs, who lived near the Love Canal toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the late 1970s and led efforts to link residents’ health problems with chemicals in the dump. “But when you’re talking about a pro-corporate state like Texas or Ohio, that’s where the EPA is really needed. That’s when the EPA is supposed to step up to the plate.”