Public Lab Wiki documentation


2 | 11 | | #12259

« Back to Law and Policy


This page is intended to provide a quick intro of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Definitely not an authoritative overview, but hopefully a bit of an orientation to the landscape of environmental management in the United States. I'm hoping these notes will help enhance long term goals of improved community-government collaboration around environmental assessment and monitoring through open source tools and local data.

Early days

The year was 1970, dubbed “The Year of the environment.” Starting on New Year’s Day and moving fast to match an upwelling of public opinion, Nixon established milestone upon milestone of federal standards and enforcement powers culminating on December 2 with the creation of EPA as a stand alone federal agency. Originally aiming at a bureaucratic structure embodying Nixon’s mandate to view “the environment as a whole” and treat "air pollution, water pollution and solid wastes as different forms of a single problem;" over time air, water and the three "categories" of manmade pollutants: pesticides, radiation, and solid waste became their own program areas.

Let’s take a step back, a little farther:

This site is a really good read: but if you’re not gonna read it, then try my hasty paraphrasing. Basically, the evolution of US environmental regulation can’t be separated from the evolution of the role of federal government itself. For most of the country’s history, common law served for settling any environmental disputes. 19th century forms of environmentalism added conservation and public health to the mix, but by the 1950s a new regulatory climate was emerging because:

“The unbridled growth of the nation's booming chemical, plastics, petroleum, automotive, aviation, and munitions works was creating highly visible forms of pollution. As a result, the traditional method of individuals seeking redress of environmental grievances under the common law became inadequate.” [...] “Not only citizens but the industries they were suing grew impatient with the lack of a priori environmental standards, both legal and scientific. Some states formed advisory commission to offer technical advice to concerned parties. From more and more quarters came the suggestion that the federal government should step in and determine exactly what were "safe" levels of various pollutants.”

1955 --> 1970 = fifteen awkward years of growing pains and rearrangements (below excerpt from same article):

The Federal Water Quality Administration (FWQA) was formed in 1965. The National Air Pollution Control Administration (NAPCA) - although not given that name until 1968 - originated as a research body in 1955 and had also acquired some standard-setting powers by the mid-1960s. Both FWQA and NAPCA were at first part of the Public Health Service, which was - as its name suggests - more committed to public health than to environmental protection. The FWQA broke off from the PHS in 1966 and became part of the Department of the Interior.

And in such style do we arrive at 1970. Happy birthday EPA!

The EPA today

Leadership, Authority, and Review--on a Budget

Like most U.S. Federal Agencies, the EPA is part of the Executive Branch and lead by an Administrator appointed by the President and confirmed by Congress. Acts of Congress (law) authorize EPA to write and enforce specific regulations. EPA's actions are also subject to judicial review, with the U.S. Supreme Court being the highest level of appeal. Lastly, EPA's ability to function is limited, to some degree, by its annual budget, which is set by Congress and approved by the President.

Relevant Laws :

At the federal level, nine principal laws regulate the environment. These are:

  • Clean Air Act (CAA)
  • Clean Water Act (CWA)
  • Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)
  • Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) (governing hazardous wastes)
  • Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) (covering a variety of reporting requirements for storage and releases of hazardous substances)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA)
  • Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA)(governing pesticide manufacture, sale and use)
  • Superfund (CERCLA)
  • Oil Pollution Act (OPA) (covering oils spills and prevention requirements)

The above laws cover four basic types of environmental regulation:

  • end-of pipe,
  • product regulation,
  • public information requirements, and
  • clean-up

State, Local, and Tribal Relationships

The EPA works with the states and territories, each of whom have their own environmental government agency or department. The sharing of power between the federal and state government is called federalism.

EPA also works directly with Tribal Nations, which are sovereign entities and not political subdivisions of the federal or state governments.


Trying to figure out which environmental management agency, and at what level, to go talk to about an environmental concern is a research project in its own right. So let’s take a look at this:

There are many nested levels of EPA jurisdictions: Federal, Region, State, and District. Additionally, states, and sometimes cities also, have their own environmental agencies (DEQ, DEP, etc). The State of California is special because it has also created Air Districts. Tribal lands have additional administrative structure within EPA Regions. Long story short, for any given location, there are overlapping agency boundaries at different levels of government.

Just to make the geography of environmental management extra spicy, sometimes specific areas have boundaries that supercede the regular jurisdictional tangle, like

Sometimes specific areas are temporarily created during an acute incident like an oil spill or other hazardous chemical or radiation release, with the idea that these are short-term boundaries and jurisdictions -- for example, the incident command structure.

Sometimes these special jurisdictions -- and Superfund is a great example here -- have their own Community Advisory Groups. Sometimes, there is a funded position for an external facilitator. This gets a special mention because to date, most PublicLab ←→ EPA communication has been through CAGs.

Actions that the EPA can take -- enforcement:

Basically, the idea is that, like most other federal statutes, states write their own implementation plan for achieving environmental quality standards, and if a state is failing to follow its own plan, then federal EPA steps in. It's an ideal not always met.

Remember that part about how in the 1950's, "the traditional method of individuals seeking redress of environmental grievances under the common law became inadequate."? Well, while it is beyond the scope of this wiki to comprehensively track the full range of EPA enforcement capabilities, there are two basic types of liability, civil and criminal (from

Civil Enforcement

  • Settlements are generally agreed-upon resolutions to an enforcement case.
    • Settlements in administrative actions are often in the form of consent agreements/final orders (CA/FOs) or administrative orders on consent (AOCs).
    • Settlements in judicial actions are in the form of consent decrees signed by all parties to the action and filed in the appropriate court.
  • Civil Penalties are monetary assessments paid by a person or regulated entity due to a violation or noncompliance. Penalties act as an incentive for coming into compliance and staying in compliance with the environmental statutes and regulations. Penalties are designed to recover the economic benefit of noncompliance and to compensate for the seriousness of the violation.
  • Injunctive Relief requires a regulated entity to perform, or refrain from performing, some designated action. It also brings the entity into compliance with environmental laws.
  • Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) can be part of an enforcement settlement. SEPs are environmental improvement projects that a violator voluntarily agrees to perform. These projects are in addition to actions required to correct the violations specified in the settlement

Criminal Enforcement

  • Criminal Penalties are federal, state or local fines imposed by a Judge at the sentencing. In addition to criminal penalties, the defendant may be ordered to pay restitution to those affected by the violation. For example, a defendant may be ordered to pay a local fire department the cost of responding to and containing a hazardous waste spill.
  • Incarceration refers to “prison time” for an individual defendant.

Actions that the EPA can take -- research and assessment:

This is a big one, folks: Under The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Environmental Assessments (EAs) and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs) are conducted.

Environmental Impact Statements (EIs)

Environmental Impact Statements are * assessments of the likelihood of impacts from alternative courses of action, and are * required from all Federal agencies, and are * the most visible NEPA requirements.

  • EPA has responsibility to prepare its own NEPA documents for compliance.
  • EPA is charged under Section 309 of the Clean Air Act to review the environmental impact statements (EIS) of other federal agencies and to comment on the adequacy and the acceptability of the environmental impacts of the proposed action.
    • EPA also serves as the repository (EIS database) for EISs prepared by federal agencies and provides notice of its availability in the Federal Register.

Environmental Impact Statements have long been a central point of engagement for citizen input on large proposed environmental changes. The publishing of EIs and pathways for submitting citizen comment on them demonstrates the variety in approaches to government transparency among the different federal agencies:

Environmental Assessments (EAs)

drumroll please..."And at last we come to FRMs and FEMs"

FRM: Federal Reference Method FEM: Federal Equivalent Method

Definition of FRMs: Federal reference method (FRM) means a method of sampling and analyzing the ambient air for an air pollutant that is specified as a reference method in an appendix to part 50 of this chapter, or a method that has been designated as a reference method in accordance with this part; it does not include a method for which a reference method designation has been canceled in accordance with § 53.11 or § 53.16.

Definition of FEMs: Federal equivalent method (FEM) means a method for measuring the concentration of an air pollutant in the ambient air that has been designated as an equivalent method in accordance with this part; it does not include a method for which an equivalent method designation has been canceled in accordance with § 53.11 or § 53.16.

Actions that the EPA can take -- policy

(need to add here)

The EPA and environmental justice

Some commentary on this:

States are federally required to include environmental justice considerations in legislation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, yet in practice some states have made no EJ considerations and the pathway to seeking federal redress is unclear (see The Center for Public Integrity wrote on Aug. 3, 2015, “In [the EPA’s civil-rights office’s] 22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the office has never once made a formal finding of a Title VI violation.” Follow up article from the Center for Public Integrity with suggestions to "fix" the EPA's Civil Rights Office: