EPA assessment says Vermont not punishing polluters enough

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(Host) An assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Vermont may not be doing enough to punish polluters.

A watchdog group says the EPA study underscores many of the points it made about the state’s environmental enforcement program.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The EPA reviewed the state’s environmental enforcement program in 2001 and had praise for the staff’s professionalism and expertise.

But the report, which wasn’t completed until 2004, found problems as well. It said the state sometimes delayed enforcement actions against polluters. And it said that the penalties levied by the state Agency of Natural Resources may not be strong enough to prevent problems in the future.

The EPA report was released by the Vermont office of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Anthony Iarrapino is a lawyer for the group. He recently completed his own study that found fault with the state’s enforcement division.

(Iarrapino) “There are striking similarities between the conclusion in that the penalties being assessed by ANR are letting polluters off the hook and not adequate to drive deterrence.”

(Dillon) The EPA report was part of a review of the enforcement programs in all six New England states. Sam Silverman is the EPA deputy director of the office of environmental stewardship. He coordinated the study.

(Silverman) “I don’t think the Vermont report indicated the strongest program in New England, nor did it indicate the weakest program.”

(Dillon) Silverman said delays in enforcement were among the problems in Vermont. He said that’s in part because the state tends to use informal enforcement tool, called a notice of alleged violation, or NOAV.

(Silverman) “Then they would issue formal enforcement actions after – in several cases a whole series of informal NOAVs, so we thought they were delaying enforcement too long.”

(Dillon) Silverman says penalties assessed by Vermont also tended to be on the low side. But Sal Spinosa, the head of the state’s enforcement division, said the penalties are enough to prevent future violations.

(Spinosa) “Yes, I do believe that the conclusion of our cases does have the requisite deterrent effect. Is it going to satisfy everyone peering in at our work and making assessments? Probably not. Is it more than some would expect in order to achieve those goals? Yeah, apparently so.”

(Dillon) But the CLF study, which was based on 11 years of state documents said that only 18% of confirmed violations resulted in formal enforcement actions. The report also said the state failed to collect 57% of the fines assessed under administrative orders.

Spinosa said the state is analyzing the enforcement data. He said there may be problems with the state’s own data management system.

(Spinosa) “We’re not satisfied that what we’re getting and what we have gotten and honestly what we’ve published is as accurate as it should be. So we’re trying to do a own sweep through those same 11 years to see if we come up with more accurate figures.”

(Dillon) Both the EPA and the Conservation Law Foundation said the state could make better use of lawyers at the attorney general’s office to pursue environmental enforcement cases.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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