GAO: EPA Should Strengthen Efforts to Measure PollutionPrevention

Limited data exist on the extent to which American industry has sought to use pollution prevention methods to reduce\r\npollutants discharged from its facilities, according to a study by\r\nthe General Accounting Office.

Limited quantitative data exist on the extent to which American industry has sought to use pollution prevention methods to reduce pollutants discharged from its facilities, according to a study by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

GAO commissioned the study at the request of several members of Congress who were interested in the potential for U.S. industry to make greater use of pollution prevention activities.

According to the study, Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) data show that in each year between 1991 and 1998, approximately one-quarter to one-third of reporting firms implemented at least one pollution prevention measure.

"Nonetheless, additional opportunities exist for pollution prevention that could provide cost-effective ways to help meet environmental requirements," said GAO.

The study noted that EPA officials said that the limitations of available data inhibit both their ability to ascertain the extent to which companies use pollution prevention practices, and their attempt to target efforts to further encourage these practices.

"Agency officials acknowledged that revisions in the information companies provide TRI could significantly help address these needs," noted GAO.

The report found that for many companies, the opportunity for a financial return is the primary reason for implementing pollution prevention measures.

Another key factor is the prospect that pollution prevention could improve a company''s public image.

Company representatives told GAO, for example, that the public availability of TRI data on facilities'' discharges provided a powerful incentive to minimize releases of toxic pollutants.

Other factors that encourage firms to pursue pollution prevention include:

  • laws and regulations that reduce allowable pollutant discharges while allowing companies the flexibility to achieve the reductions through pollutant prevention; and
  • the proliferation in recent years of business strategies, such as environmental management systems, under which firms look comprehensively at the environmental impacts of their products and services.

GAO found that some firms reject pollution prevention methods for three reasons. The first reason is because of technical challenges.

"While some pollution prevention techniques involve relatively simple, common sense practices, others can involve significant changes, such as revamped production practices or changes in raw materials," said GAO.

GAO also noted that pollution prevention methods may be rejected because they are not considered "sufficiently profitable."

"The decision to adopt pollution prevention measures may require more justification than a calculation that its benefits exceed its cost," noted GAO.

Third, regulations that prescribe the use of specific techniques to meet pollutant emission limits sometimes have the unintended effect of discouraging pollution prevention.

In the reports conclusion, GAO recommended that the EPA administrator amend the agency''s rule for companies that report toxic releases to its TRI:

  • to clarify reporting requirements so that facilities report their source reduction activities in a consistent manner, and
  • to obtain accurate data on the quantity of emissions reduced so that the agency can ascertain the extent and impact of source reduction activities.

GAO also recommended that the administrator "systematically determine the extent of the agency''s compliance with the Pollution Prevention Act''s requirement that EPA review regulations of the agency prior and subsequent to their proposal to determine their effect on source reduction."

If warranted by the results of the agency''s analysis, GAO further recommended that the administrator develop a plan to improve the agency''s compliance.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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