The “Power of SEPs” – Or, How an Innovative Enforcement Settlement Can Have Wide Benefits

About the author: Joshua Secunda is the Innovations Coordinator and a Senior Enforcement Counsel with EPA’s Boston office.

Earlier this year, our Region and the U.S. Veteran’s Administration (VA) won an Environmental Business Journal’s 2007 Achievement Award for the creation of innovative pollution prevention and compliance tracking software. The software will perform tasks that cannot be achieved by software systems currently on the market. The VA committed to spend a minimum of $500,000 to design and implement the Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP). Actual costs may reach a million dollars.

In 2003, the Region inspected the VA campus in White River Junction, Vermont. While there, our inspectors discovered potentially explosive hazardous waste on-site. The lab building was evacuated, and the containers removed and detonated. The explosive power of the wastes equaled several sticks of dynamite. Numerous other RCRA (hazardous waste) violations were found.

Although the Region’s Federal Facility program had provided hands-on compliance assistance and lead multimedia inspections since 1994, the VA remained in chronic noncompliance. This puzzled us. Apparently, enforcement actions succeeded in getting the VA’s attention.

Nonetheless, enforcement alone didn’t measurably improve their performance. We decided to use this enforcement action to identify basic causes of the VA’s environmental difficulties, and formulate solutions that might be implemented through a SEP. A SEP is an environmentally beneficial project that a violator voluntarily undertakes as part of an enforcement action settlement.

The best way to do that was in collaboration with the VA itself. We concluded that the VA’s outdated and inaccurate chemical and waste tracking systems were a key contributor to their problems. Due to these inadequate systems, the VA didn’t know where its hazardous materials or wastes were located, their quantities, or whether chemicals were being double or triple ordered.

Working with White River Junction VA personnel, we identified the critical tasks that a computerized “cradle to grave” management system would have to perform: automatically notify on-line chemical purchasers of non-toxic substitutes; reduce the total amount of hazardous products purchased through a chemical “adoption” inventory system; maintain an inventory of hazardous products and wastes and where they are stored; and provide access to a MSDS electronic library.

To achieve these capabilities, a new software system would have to be designed. Ultimately, the VA agreed to create this innovative system and test it at all eleven New England VA hospitals. If successful, the VA hopes to implement it nationwide. The VA is the largest health care organization in the world. Thus, the SEP’s ultimate environmental impact could be significant.

Elements of this story are worth noting. The costs to EPA of achieving environmental improvement go up steadily, while the resources to achieve them shrink. Thus, while litigating, we should simultaneously explore collaborative strategies that identify solutions to institutional environmental problems, and pose solutions to them. EPA has multiple tools to achieve compliance in addition to enforcement. Leveraging enforcement actions to address root causes of chronic noncompliance is an additional tool. Designing SEPs that focus on a sector’s systemic environmental problems should be a central goal of our work.

Suggested Links:

EPA Region 1 Healthcare Sector Assistance

Press Release on this settlement