The focus of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the new administration is outcomes and results, a senior agency official told Connecticut business leaders May 18.
"It's a great area to be focused on," EPA Region 1 administrator Alexandra Dapolito Dunn told about 170 attendees at CBIA's 2018 Energy & Environment Conference.
"We are trying to change the way EPA thinks about its work."
One way the agency is changing is by maintaining ongoing conversations with permit holders.
"Instead of that one-time, big negotiation where we throw it all on the table and bury ourselves under the weight of the number of decisions we have to make, we have to commit to say we're going to have a continuing conversation with the permittee, with the regulatory entity, with the facility, and keep that going," Dunn said.
"That's a change in how we make our decisions. And our decisions become less of a moment and more of a continuum.
"This is all the philosophy that's happening under Administrator [Scott] Pruitt's leadership and under the leadership of many of the other political appointees."
Dunn admitted there's skepticism among some of the career staff, "but I think, over time, we're going to be able to show that this isn't about compromising the integrity or quality of the decision."
"We're not trying to shortcut regulations," she added. "But we are trying to be more outcome-oriented."
However, Dunn cautioned against any thought that regulations will be relaxed under this administration.
Enforcement and compliance is alive and well at EPA.
"We have had several situations where permitted entities, regulated entities, have come in with a new engineer or a new lawyer or a new team because they say, 'this is the Pruitt EPA and that we could probably make the enforcement action go away, right?'
"No, that's not how it works."
Dunn said permit holders with ongoing enforcement matters have approached her office, asking, "so where's the magic fairy dust that the Pruitt administration is going to sprinkle on us and making it all go away?"
"That doesn't happen," she said. "We are keeping the rigor of our enforcement program front and center."
Dunn said enforcement is the mostly costly and time-consuming process for her staff, and they'd rather work with permit holders than penalize them.
Dunn said the EPA has several "tools in its toolbox."
These include pollution prevention, compliance assistance, and enforcement.
"Even though the perception is that our favorite tool is the big hammer, it's our least efficient tool," she said.
"Enforcement action is so resource-intensive. It actually takes our staff away from other matters. There are ways we can get better outcomes.
"If we're measuring the rate of compliance, we're not always going to pick up that hammer.”
The EPA would rather educate permit holders and have trade associations support that training through webinars, checklists, and other tools, she said.
Dunn said water quality continues to be a focus for EPA Region 1.
"We've had a 71% increase in extreme events. We understand we need to adapt," she said, adding, "I am allowed to talk about climate change.
"One of Administrator Pruitt's principles is cooperative federalism—let the states set the agenda. Let the states tell the EPA what is important to them.
"There's a lot of talk in this region about energy and clean energy. We want to talk about what you want to talk about."
Let the states set the agenda. Let the states tell the EPA what is important to them.
"One of the ways we're responding to that conversation is by making funding available for infrastructure," Dunn said.
She cited a new federal credit program for water and wastewater projects. Eligible borrowers include government entities, utilities, but also corporations, joint ventures, and partnerships.
The financing can cover 49% of a project, Dunn said.
She said emerging contaminants are a focus of the agency, as is lead abatement.
"This is part of the back-to-basics agenda that Administrator Pruitt has set. What's EPA's core mission? Clean air, clean water, clean land," she said.
"Some of the other work is interesting but the hard, sit down, crank it out type of work is reducing exposure to lead in children all over New England."
Dunn's other areas of focus include cleaning New England's 127 Superfund sites, and improving air quality.
She noted that Connecticut was once again designated a non-attainment state for air quality.
She said state officials and industry continue to work hard to control emissions but that Connecticut is at the mercy of other states.
"A lot of these air emissions are coming in from neighboring states, which shall be unnamed, and neighboring states that have their own economic agenda and their own desires, and Connecticut’s air quality may not be their top priority, so it's very difficult," she said.
That's where the EPA can step in and resolve issues between states by finding common ground, however small that may be, Dunn said.
"We have to look at our environmental cleanup journey as a long one," she noted.
"Sometimes we will make big leaps forward and sometimes it will be really small steps.
"But each one of those efforts, each one of steps, puts us in a little bit of a better place than we are today."