On Feb. 8, EPA released a draft for public comment of its National Compliance Initiatives (NCIs) for fiscal years 2020–2023. These NCIs will represent EPA’s national priorities for the next triennium and are the first such priorities established by the Trump Administration. Formerly known as National Enforcement Initiatives, the current priorities for the FY2017–2019 cycle were established during the Obama Administration. In August 2018, EPA announced the transition to NCIs to emphasize the agency’s focus on compliance as a priority over enforcement.

The NCIs announced this month represent several changes in focus from the previous cycle and removes initiatives that had been priorities for decades. EPA is proposing to keep three existing NCIs from the prior cycle. First, EPA will continue to include “Cutting Hazardous Air Pollutants,” which EPA believes are still emitted in greater quantities than facilities report, and will help to achieve key portions of EPA’s FY2018–2022 Strategic Plan to address vulnerable populations and Clean Air Act non-attainment areas. Second, EPA will retain “Reducing Risks of Accidental Releases at Industrial and Chemical Facilities,” as EPA has found that many facilities do not adequately manage risk to protect surrounding communities. Third, “Reducing Toxic Air Emissions from Hazardous Waste Facilities” will continue to be a priority as EPA believes these emissions pose serious health threats to the public and that this initiative will also help to address vulnerable populations and non-attainment areas.

EPA is also proposing to modify two current initiatives:

  1. Transitioning “Keeping Industrial Pollutants out of the Nation’s Waters” to “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Significant Non-Compliance Reduction,” with a focus on reducing significant noncompliance with Clean Water Act NPDES permits by 50 percent by the end of FY 2022.
  2. Transitioning the focus of “Ensuring Energy Extraction Activities Comply with Environmental Laws” away from just the natural gas extraction sector to focus on significant public health and environmental problems without regard to sector, with a particular focus on significant sources of volatile organic compounds.

EPA is also proposing two new NCIs:

  1. "NCI to increase compliance with drinking water standards.”
  2. "NCI to reduce children’s exposure to lead.”

These two initiatives suggest the agency is placing greater emphasis on drinking water safety in response to the lead crisis in Flint and emerging contaminants such as per- and polyflouroalkyl substances (PFAS). While EPA continues to consider long-term revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule for drinking water systems, and only recently released an action plan on PFAS, this compliance initiative will refocus the agency on drinking water across the board, while also broadening the agency’s focus on lead exposure to address sources beyond drinking water systems.

The agency also proposes returning two current initiatives to “core” enforcement programs, as it views these initiatives as being largely achieved:

  1. "Reducing Air Pollution from the Largest Sources."
  2. "Keeping Raw Sewage and Contaminated Stormwater Out of Our Nation’s Waters."

Both of these initiatives have been an agency focus for two decades—longer for air pollution sources—and EPA believes it has substantially and successfully completed both initiatives. For entities engaged in long-term consent decrees with EPA, this shift in focus will not represent much of a change, but for others who have yet to face enforcement, this announcement should come as a relief.

The full Federal Register Notice, along with instructions for submitting comments, is available online. The NCIs are open for comment until March 11, 2019, and Taft’s environmental team is available to discuss how these proposed NCIs might impact your facility or assist with drafting comments.