Sherwin Williams sued by New Jersey for ground pollution. Are EPA regulations properly enforced?

Part of the original paint factory in Gibbsboro New jersey where soil and water contamination is now being addressed. Picture by Courier Post.

How can a company get away with such environmental violations for so long? Though agencies like the EPA set up regulations to protect public health, there is simply a lack strong enforcement laws and incentives to deter companies from complying to standards. In the case of Sherwin-Williams polluting Camden municipalities, this lawsuit resulted in a revitalization of the state’s Environmental Enforcement Program. Over the past two years, New Jersey has filed twelve environmental resource protective actions, however, there were absolutely no filings for the eight years before that.

The relaxation of enforcement programs is not limited to just New Jersey. According to the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, twenty states lack any sort of dedicated enforcement staff to combat against environmental crimes. Out of the thirty states that are staffed, only eight were considered to be adequate in terms of both investigators and attorneys. Budget cuts and shift of power from the federal level to the state level in environmental compliance are the primary causes of this reduction in staffing. Current EPA employees fear that the low amount of state level staff will increase the workload on existing staff members, resulting in fewer individuals entering the field. The issue of state level environmental enforcement has been an ongoing problem and the number of pollution crimes being prosecuted has continually decreased. There is some disagreement on whether a relaxation of enforcement is due to the lack of resources or lack of necessity due to pass success in accountability.

Punishments for companies that infringe upon environmental regulations are not severe enough to discourage them. According to the EPA, monetary penalties seem to be the greatest deterrent to prevent smaller companies from polluting. The money received from these penalties primarily go towards clean up operations. Although incarceration is also a possibility, only individuals can be punished this way, which hardly affects the company as a whole. These penalties however do not prevent bad company behavior as long as the company is able to pay fines and help clean the mess up after operations are complete. This monetary punishments are thus relatively regressive as they punish smaller businesses to a greater extent since they are less likely able to pay the associated fines.

A lack of disincentives in conjunction with the EPA’s diminishing resources seems to have weakened environmental agencies’ ability to enforce the standards they have put forth. That is not to say that all companies pollute or take advantage of this, that’s far from it. Most companies do recognize the long-term benefits of sustainability and investing in public health. In fact, 90% of CEOs believe sustainability is important to a company’s success and 88% of business students believe environmental issues is a top priority to learn about. Multiple studies have also concluded that businesses that invest in corporate social responsibility efforts have a higher return on investment than companies that do not, as consumers are more inclined to buy from a socially-responsible company. In the future, perhaps a changing mindset in sustainable business practices will lead to a culture that does not require EPA enforcement.









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