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Environmental Enforcement Is ‘Thin Green Line’

U nknown to most Americans, there is a ‘thin green line’ of environmental enforcement protecting them from toxic harm.

The reasons stem, in part, from years of eroding resources, an inability for government to act swiftly to adopt and implement new technology that can better monitor and measure environmental damage and a history of government failing to develop partnerships.

the public is demanding greater accountability, responsibility and transparency in environmental enforcement.1 But California regulators have great latitude in choosing whether to handle a violation administratively, civilly, criminally, or not at all.

Unfortunately, the future of environmental enforcement, even in environmentally conscious California, is not looking upbeat. California’s state budget crisis forced state enforcement staff to take 26 furlough days in 2009, which basically provided polluters with five weeks when state environmental enforcement staff weren’t on the job.

In 2010, proposed state salary reductions and benefit cuts threaten to stretch the thin green line even more as experienced environmental enforcement staffers take early retirement, find better paying jobs or move to other agencies. Already, California lacks sufficient staff to inspect more than a fraction of regulated facilities, let alone unregulated facilities, and resources to pursue more than a small percentage of violations are limited.

Yet, as the thin green line gets thinner, there are rising numbers of environmental and public health threats. Additionally,

Indeed, environmental enforcement traditionally has been carried out by state, local and federal agencies outside the glare of the public spotlight. Enforcement decisions, such as which agency is going to do an inspection, which facilities get inspected and when, where to allocate resources, what level of fine to impose, etc., are left to the discretion of each regulatory agency and typically aren’t reviewed by the public for consistency and fairness.

Failure to enforce environmental laws and regulations on a consistent basis means,

among other things, that deterrence is under———————————

1 For example, see Public Policy Institute of California’s 2007 survey, “Latino Attitudes and the Environment”: 49% of all Californians say that state government is not doing enough to protect the environment as compared to 72% of Californian African Americans and 58% of Latinos. At http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/jtf/ JTF_LatinoAttitudesEnvironmentJTF.pdf.


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