Air compliance monitoring of the state’s polluting industries declined by more than a quarter during the pandemic, according to a new report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s internal watchdog organization.
An EPA Office of Inspector General report found that overall air monitoring compliance nationwide had fallen by an average 2.1% in 2020, but the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s total compliance monitoring activities dropped by 28%.
Nationally, compliance monitoring activities at major emitting facilities decreased in 33 of 53 states and territories, but only 10 states and territories had a 25% or more decline during the pandemic.
“Lower levels of compliance monitoring during the pandemic or in future emergencies could result in a diminished deterrent effect against noncompliance and less assurance that facilities are complying with statutory and regulatory requirements intended to protect human health and the environment,” the EPA OIG concluded in its report.
The EPA and IDEM adopted temporary “enforcement discretion” policies during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the report, the EPA did not provide pandemic-specific guidance on how state and local agencies should have prioritized facilities for compliance monitoring
An executive order issued by Gov. Eric Holcomb March 23, 2020 authorized state agencies to waive, suspend or modify nonessential regulations.
IDEM did not waive any regulatory requirements, but did allow the agency to give some leeway in compliance enforcement.
“[A]ll regulated entities are encouraged to take all available actions necessary to ensure continued compliance with environmental regulations and permit requirements to protect the health and safety of Hoosiers and the environment. However, in the instance that noncompliance is unavoidable directly due to impacts from COVID-19, IDEM will exercise enforcement discretion as appropriate,” the agency wrote in a 2020 memo explaining its pandemic policy.
IDEM allowed some minor facilities that claimed to have COVID-related difficulties meeting monitoring or reporting requirements to receive extensions.
According to the report, IDEM’s air compliance monitoring at the state’s largest emissions sources, known as Title V-major sources, was already below the historical average before the pandemic, reportedly due to budgetary and staffing issues at the agency.
After the governor declared a public health emergency, IDEM’s compliance activities at those major sources dipped even further between April and July before rebounding and exceeding the historical average in August.
IDEM did not perform full compliance evaluations, which cover all regulated emissions and pollutants, at Title V facilities in April and May 2020. It began again in June and exceeded the historical average for the rest of the fiscal year.
IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott in February reported to the Environmental Rules Board that the pandemic had initially slowed inspections due to social distancing regulations.
“At IDEM, some of our inspections had been reduced for some period of time during the big lockdown period or hunker down period as Gov. Holcomb had indicated, but, for the most part, we're back up and doing all our inspections,” Pigott told the ERB. “In terms of the work we're doing, we measure progress in terms of our permits, our water quality or air quality and our inspections. In terms of permits, we've continued to issue permits and less time than is allocated under statute and in about 65% of the time allowed. So, we're pretty happy with that.”
The EPA said its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance would coordinate with the EPA Region 5 office, which oversees Indiana and several other Midwestern states, to determine whether more technical assistance for IDEM is required.
The agency also said it would explore the use of remote video to conduct off-site inspections during emergencies like the pandemic.
IDEM said it was able to prioritize compliance monitoring activities and inspections to ensure the agency had sufficient oversight and inspections of permitted sources and was one of only a few states to continue to conduct on-site inspections throughout the year.
"IDEM continues to have a strong compliance monitoring program, even with the impacts of the pandemic, but we recognize that there were some challenges during this period and will continue to work with EPA to evaluate and implement the recommendations by the Office of the Inspector General’s Office," IDEM told the Indiana Environmental Reporter.