Mandatory Fines Proven Clean Water Enforcement Tool

AUSTIN—Use of mandatory minimum penalties for clean water enforcement in New Jersey led to a 76 percent drop in violations, according to a report released by the Texas Public Interest Research Group (TexPIRG). The report comes just days after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) announced it was considering use of such penalties in its own enforcement program.

"Polluters in Texas routinely escape punishment, so they go on to break the law over and over again," said Luke Metzger, TexPIRG Advocate. "Mandatory minimum penalties are a proven tool to improve compliance with the law. Texas' environment and public health would benefit significantly from such a policy."

In December, the TCEQ launched a comprehensive review of its enforcement program and practices. The review came in response to a series of critical reports by state and federal auditors, non-profit organizations, and academics. An audit by EPA Region 6 found that almost 90 percent of Texas water polluters escape any punishment. The state auditor's report agreed that Texas' "enforcement process does not consistently ensure that violators are held accountable." On May 7, TCEQ released a list of key issues they were considering, including the adoption of mandatory minimum fines.

The report documents both New Jersey and California's successful use of mandatory minimums to dramatically cut illegal water pollution. New Jersey's Mandatory Minimum Penalty policy went into effect in 1991; in the first full year the law went into effect, the number of enforcement actions increased 57 percent and the number of penalties assessed increased 45 percent. Over the next eight years, as violations declined by 76 percent, the number of enforcement actions dropped 77 percent and the number of penalties assessed shrank 90 percent. California's program, started in January 2000, is also already showing clear marks of success with a 84 percent reduction of violations in clean water act permits.

TexPIRG pointed out that TCEQ's weak enforcement, in addition to putting the environment at risk, also contributes to the shrinking state budget. The auditor found that failure to assess adequate penalties cost the state at least $7 million. Inconsistent enforcement also hurts law-abiding businesses. 

"Most Texas businesses take the time and pay the money to stay in compliance with the law," said Metzger. "Unfortunately, these law-abiding businesses are put at a disadvantage by the unlevel playing field TCEQ has created. Scofflaws are profiting off of weak enforcement."

TCEQ is currently accepting public comment on its enforcement review until May 28. A final decision of reforms is expected by the end of the year.