The Gorilla: Enforcement at the EPA

Without enforcement, laws and regulations that protect us from pollution and hazards are meaningless. Enforcement is where accountability and corrective measures happen. Where companies and other regulated entities actually do something in real life: limit pollution, curtail toxic releases, clean up hazardous waste, monitor and report emissions – and so on.

Before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and strong federal environmental laws in the 1970s, environmental law enforcement was weak. The federal government had little enforcement power and states lacked the resources or will to enforce their environmental laws, if they had laws at all.

For that reason, enforcement has been a core part of the EPA since its creation. 

The first administrator of the EPA, William Ruckelshaus, a former prosecutor, emphasized strong enforcement as both a practice at the agency and an important aspect of its legitimacy. He later famously characterized the EPA’s role as the “gorilla in the closet”: the heavyweight enforcer that could always be brought out against intransigent violators of environmental laws or in lieu of states that were not adequately enforcing the law.

While enforcement has always been central to the identity and functioning of the agency, how enforcement has worked (or not worked) has changed over time. The agency has developed different approaches, theories, and tools of enforcement and compliance over time. Because changes to enforcement policy are often easier to accomplish than regulatory changes, presidential administrations have used their discretion to weaken, strengthen, or otherwise change enforcement. 

Administrative discretion has been further abetted by how enforcement is less noticeable than changes in regulations, legislations, and budgets, which have built in mechanisms for public involvement. This allows regulated entities – concentrated, organized groups – to pressure the agency on how it approaches enforcement. Nevertheless, the public and other outside influences – the media, environmental organizations, employee organizations, Congress, and the courts – have also shaped enforcement policy.

Read More