Counting Up Fines Is A Poor Way To Measure The Effectiveness Of Environmental Regulation

David Glatt of the North Dakota Health Department tells a forum about the Red River on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, that governments will be relucant to to give up any authority to solve river issues. (Forum Communications photo by Don Davis)

“Government regulators have some powerful tools at their disposal to crack down on violators of environmental laws, namely fines, lawsuits and other formal enforcement actions,” reports Archie Ingersoll today. “North Dakota officials, however, let these tools sit untouched at the bottom of the toolbox the vast majority of the time.”

He continues:

In the past three years, 325 facilities around the state have broken longstanding federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. In just seven of those cases, state officials took formal enforcement action.

That works out to 2 percent of violations being met with formal enforcement. That’s the lowest percentage of the 43 states for which complete data is available, according to an analysis of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records. Nationally, 16 percent of violations see formal enforcement, and it’s 24 percent in Minnesota.

This is important information, and I suppose it will feed into certain political narratives about North Dakota’s lax approach to environmental regulations, though it’s worth noting that the violations Ingersoll is writing mostly aren’t related to the oil and gas industry.

“In recent years, the explosion of oil and natural gas drilling has been accompanied by a bevy of spills and illegal dumping in western North Dakota,” he reports. “But enforcement related to those incidents typically falls under state law rather than federal laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, said Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Environmental Health Section.”

Most of the issues Ingersoll notes seem related to public water facilities, which is certainly troubling. But I think Glatt does a good job of explaining why these issues may not immediately result in enforcement actions.

…people treat government enforcement – be it traffic tickets or fines for violating environmental policy – as a goal in and of itself. That’s a mistake.

“Our philosophy on that is, you know, things break — no fault of anybody. And so before we jump right into fining them, again, we want to make sure everything’s in compliance,” he told Ingersoll.

That makes a mountain of sense to me.

Consider it this way: Is the number of traffic tickets issued a good way to measure traffic safety?

The answer is no. It isn’t. At all.

Sometimes you’ll hear people – media reporters and members of the public – refer to the number of speeding tickets of DUI arrests as a sort of indicator of traffic safety. But it really isn’t. The number of traffic citations or arrests made may be related to an increase in the number of cops on the road. Or a change in the directives those cops receive.

For instance, maybe the cops are tasked with de facto quotas (ahem) for a certain number of arrests and/or tickets.

This doesn’t necessarily mean our roads are less safe. It just means the cops are doing more enforcement.

The point I’m trying to make is that some people treat government enforcement – be it traffic tickets or fines for violating environmental policy – as a goal in and of itself. That’s a mistake. The goal is safe roads and clean environment, not seeing how many tickets a cop can write or how many environmental infractions regulators can prosecute.

What troubled me about Ingersoll’s report is not that North Dakota does far fewer environmental enforcement actions than any other state. It’s that some violators – a small number of the total detailed in the article – seem to be consistent violators:

In North Dakota, over 2,200 facilities must abide by federal environmental laws. The most recent EPA records show that 114 facilities are not in compliance with these laws.

Of those facilities, 15 have broken the law to the point that the EPA describes them as significant violators. Eight of the 15 have been out of compliance for at least three years, and in that time none has faced formal enforcement.

Again, I’m not so much troubled by the fact that North Dakota doesn’t write as many “tickets” for environmental infractions as other states. As long a the problems are getting fixed, then that’s really the goal. What I want to know more about is instances like these eight facilities which have apparently been out of compliance for years.

That should be the focus.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and the host of the Rob (Re)Port on Fargo-based WDAY AM970 from noon-2pm weekdays.

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