Playing By The Rules

About the author: Karen Reshkin manages the Web site in EPA’s Chicago office. She’s been there since 1991, and can still remember life before the Internet.

A few weeks ago, I declared that I’d try to diminish my ignorance about some of the things EPA does. Turns out it’s hard to write about things you don’t know! I hope you’ll bear with me if some of this seems a bit elementary. I want to understand better how enforcement works at EPA, so I’ll start with laws and regulations.

EPA is charged with implementing federal environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Statutes like these are passed by Congress and signed into law by the President. They may get amended, as happened with the Clean Water Act in 1972, 1977, 1981…

Those laws look quite, um, legal to me. Why would you need regulations on top of that? Turns out the statutes usually don’t contain the details you’d need to actually enforce them (e.g. allowable concentrations of particular substances in water). EPA is a regulatory agency, which means Congress has authorized it to write regulations that explain how to implement a statute. There’s a whole process for doing that, and it generally includes an opportunity for the public to comment on a proposed rule (regulation).

The Web provides an excellent way for people to get involved in rulemaking. You can view the proposed rule online and provide comments online as well. (More traditional methods like paper mail still work, too.) The collection of documents related to a rulemaking is called a docket and it includes public comments, background reports, Federal Register notices, and other supporting documents. Dockets are accessible to the public and serves as EPA’s electronic public docket and online comment system.

This didn’t really bring us to enforcement yet, but I’m getting there.