The Environmental Protection Agency’s traditional approach to securing compliance with pollution control rules relies heavily on on-site government inspections and enforcement actions. But it has never been realistic to expect that government inspectors and enforcement officers could be everywhere at all times, or that everyone would strictly follow the rules.
This dilemma led the EPA to initiate a supplemental approach known as Next Generation Compliance, an effort David Hindin has led since 2012. It includes designing regulations that are easier to implement and enforce; using innovative pollution-detection technology; creating greater transparency to alert the public of problems; shifting toward electronic rather than paper reporting to the agency; and using data analytics to better identify serious violators.
“The Next Gen Compliance initiative was David’s creation and he has been the leader on it ever since it first came on the scene,” said Stan Meiburg, EPA’s acting deputy administrator.
“David has really brought a change in approach and is working toward a cultural change in how we think about and achieve environmental protection in this country, particularly in the compliance process,” said Thomas Burack, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.
In one creative example, Hindin and his team helped deploy infrared cameras to detect otherwise imperceptible releases of hydrocarbons from oil and natural gas storage tanks. The cameras can uncover significant leaks that contribute to smog formation. Through EPA’s efforts, state regulators now have more access to these cameras, and some industry groups are taking proactive steps to use them.
“When the industry steps up and says, ‘We want to find the problems before EPA finds them,’ that’s a success,” Hindin said. “The measure of success is not the number of enforcement actions, but it’s how much compliance you have and how much you reduce pollution.”
Hindin has led the effort to make electronic reporting the standard approach for industry to use in reporting to the government instead of relying on paper submissions. For example, in one air pollution regulation, companies now take time-stamped photos to show their compliance with regulations and send them immediately to EPA, lessening the need for on-site inspections. This move to electronic reporting has yielded benefits at both the federal and state level, plus helping industry better understand their environmental obligations so that their compliance reporting is easier.
“One state found that when they moved to all electronic reporting in their water programs, the rate of noncompliance dropped precipitously because the companies knew that we knew what they were doing in real time,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator in EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Other EPA initiatives championed by Hindin are resulting in the public being better informed about environmental threats.
The agency’s 2015 Petroleum Refinery Rule, for example, requires refineries to control toxic emissions, in part through real-time monitoring of emissions. Having the surrounding community constantly aware of these potential dangers at its doorstep is expected to make refineries more proactive about improving their environmental performance.
In addition, when communities, including Seattle and Chicago, encounter sewage overflows, they now are alerting the public via websites. The EPA also maintains buoys on the Charles and Mystic rivers in Massachusetts with solar-powered water sensors that measure water quality every 15 minutes and upload the data to a public website.
Hindin secured funding to expand the use of the “Village Green,” a solar-powered park bench that monitors air pollution and allows for real-time results to be shared with the public. The technology was introduced in Washington, D.C. at the National Zoo, and has expanded to five other cities.
“He has really changed the agency’s orientation so that we are better thinkers and doers on implementation than we used to be,” said Giles. “The net result is that air pollution is going down and water pollution is going down for communities all across the country.”
Next Generation Compliance is not a specific law or regulation, but a paradigm shift in EPA thinking. So far, eight EPA regulations and about 50 enforcement settlements have incorporated Next Generation approaches. But because Hindin and his team have no direct authority over those who write EPA rules or settle enforcement actions, he has had to use the power of persuasion to embed these ideas into the agency’s culture while creating the tools to support these Next Generation approaches.
“He thinks carefully about a problem, tries to see things that need to be done and who needs to do it, and he contacts people on a very personal level to get them to see how slight changes could accomplish so much more,” said Catherine Tunis of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Hindin has held training sessions with more than 1,200 EPA and state employees on how to think about enforcement in different ways, how to bring in new research and ideas, and how to change the way regulations are written to encourage compliance.
“He set up a consulting service internally to advise and consult on regulations, and has succeeded in persuading folks across the agency to change their approach,” Giles said. “He has been changing attitudes here in a way very few people succeed in doing and it is having a real effect on the work of the agency and our ability to protect people.”