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January/February 2024

21st-century environmental challenges and revitalizing EPA enforcement

David M Uhlmann


  • Discusses EPA’s National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives (NECIs) for fiscal years 2024 through 2027.
  • Examines the reinvigoration of the EPA's enforcement program, with approximately 300 enforcement positions reinstated through funding.
  • Addresses EPA’s commitment to seeking environmental justice for underserved communities.
21st-century environmental challenges and revitalizing EPA enforcement
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This article is derived from the author’s keynote speech that was presented on October 12, 2023, at the ABA Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources’ Fall Conference in Washington, D.C. The article is verbatim except for minor edits to convert the speech into article format and the inclusion of updated enforcement data.

This is a profound moment for environmental protection efforts in our country. Over the past half-century, under presidents of both parties, we have made great progress addressing the challenges that led to the enactment of our environmental laws during the 1970s. Our air is cleaner, our rivers and streams are healthier, and we have far fewer hazardous waste sites.

We have achieved those successes because of conscientious companies across America who meet their environmental obligations and the vigilance of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Justice Department when companies break the law and put their profits before the health of our communities.

Despite those successes, we face numerous challenges, starting with the existential threat of climate disruption, the scourge of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, and the reality that, for too long, the worst effects of pollution have been visited upon overburdened communities. The steps we take today to address these 21st century environmental challenges will shape our legacy—and will determine whether we provide a sustainable future for our children and our grandchildren.

Environmental protection should not be partisan. A changing climate, with searing heat, wildfires, worsening storms, and increasing drought does not care whether we are conservatives or progressives, Republicans or Democrats. The obligation to protect military families and farming communities from PFAS contamination likewise should not be a partisan issue.

How we enforce the environmental laws in the United States also should not be a partisan issue. I served for 17 years as a prosecutor at the Justice Department, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, where we made decisions about what cases to bring based solely on the law and the facts and the obligation to do justice in our cases. There simply is no room for political influence or bias in the enforcement of any of our laws.

I am committed to upholding these principles at EPA. We should promote the efforts of companies with strong ethics and integrity and environmental stewardship programs, who meet or exceed their obligations under the environmental laws. Companies that are good corporate citizens, who make the investment and effort necessary to comply with the environmental laws, should not be at a competitive disadvantage with polluters who flout the law. On the other hand, companies who break the law and expose our communities to harm must be held accountable. We must never waver in our commitment to fair and vigorous enforcement, based on the law and the facts, free from political influence. Upholding the rule of law and providing a level playing field are fundamental American values that have served us well in the United States for generations. We must always remain true to those values.

EPA’s climate enforcement and compliance strategy

On September 28, I announced EPA’s Climate Enforcement and Compliance Strategy, which directs all EPA enforcement and compliance offices to address climate change, as appropriate, in every matter within their jurisdiction.

The climate crisis continues to accelerate. This year will be the warmest on record, with more billion-dollar weather events during the first eight months of the year than in any prior calendar year in the United States. Wildfires are no longer geographically limited. Sea levels and ocean temperatures are rising dramatically. If we fail to take decisive action by the end of this decade, we will lose our ability to stave off the worst effects of climate change.

To meet the urgency of this moment, EPA’s enforcement and compliance program will prioritize enforcement and compliance actions to mitigate climate change and include climate adaptation and resilience in case conclusions whenever appropriate. Both requirements apply across all EPA enforcement and compliance efforts, including criminal, civil, federal facilities, and cleanup actions.

The first requirement, to prioritize enforcement and compliance activities that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, will focus on reducing emissions of the highest impact climate super-pollutants, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are 25 times and 150 times more potent than carbon dioxide. We also will prioritize other greenhouse gases by bringing enforcement actions to address illegal carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and volatile organic compound emissions.

Enforcement could include civil and criminal actions in many sectors, such as gas flaring, emissions from storage tanks and wastewater treatment systems, incineration/combustion operations, and compliance with the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule. EPA also will continue pursuing violators of the Clean Air Act’s Renewable Fuel Standards to protect the integrity of the program and ensure the climate benefits of the Renewable Fuel Standards are achieved.

The second requirement is to incorporate climate adaptation and resilience principles into all enforcement and compliance activities. EPA’s enforcement and compliance program will build climate resilience into case resolutions by considering relevant climate risks in enforcement matters and including, where appropriate, injunctive relief measures to ensure that polluting facilities will be resilient to projected impacts of climate change.

We will target investigations at facilities presenting the highest risks from climate change, which may include considering how frequently the geographic area is impacted by catastrophic weather events each year. We will pay close attention to preserving the critical infrastructure needed to supply safe drinking water. Violations of requirements under other laws may also provide opportunities for injunctive relief that results in increased resilience to future impacts from climate change, thereby reducing risk of future harm to the environment or a community.

Our enforcement staff will ensure consistent consideration of climate change in the case development process and incorporate relevant climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience considerations in administrative actions, civil referrals, consent decree approval requests, and criminal cases referred to the Department of Justice. In addition, we will continue to provide technical assistance to drinking water and wastewater systems to help them return systems to compliance, build operator capacity, and ensure ongoing sustainable, clean, and safe water that can withstand climate change.

Taken as a whole, our Climate Enforcement and Compliance Strategy recognizes the urgency of the climate crisis and takes a comprehensive approach to this challenge. Nothing could be more critical to our mission at EPA.

National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives (NECIs)

For over 25 years, EPA has established national initiatives to focus its enforcement and compliance resources on the most serious environmental problems where federal leadership is needed. These National Enforcement and Compliance Initiatives (NECIs), developed in a non-partisan way across administrations, have allowed EPA and its state partners to meet many of the goals of our environmental laws.

In August, I announced six initiatives for fiscal years 2024 through 2027. For the first time, we are pursuing an initiative focused on mitigating climate change, as well as initiatives addressing exposure to PFAS, and protecting communities from carcinogenic coal ash contamination. We are strengthening our efforts to address hazardous air pollution in overburdened communities by adding, also for the first time ever, a geographical focus to our existing air toxins initiative. We also are continuing existing initiatives focused on providing safe drinking water and reducing the risk of deadly chemical accidents.

Each of these initiatives addresses an environmental and public health challenge that is difficult to tackle without additional resources and a concerted national effort. Each initiative incorporates environmental justice considerations to ensure that the benefits of our nation’s environmental laws can be shared by everyone living in the United States. Taken together, these initiatives focus on significant noncompliance with environmental laws across all media—air, water, and land—so that we protect American communities from pollution and so that law-abiding companies are not at a competitive disadvantage with polluters.

Climate NECI

The Mitigating Climate Change NECI focuses enforcement resources on three significant contributors to climate change: first, methane emissions from oil and gas facilities; second, methane emissions from landfills; and third, the use, importation, and production of HFCs.

Oil and gas facilities and landfills are the second and third largest sources of methane emissions in the United States. By focusing on enforcement of long-standing air pollution requirements for conventional pollutants, such as New Source Performance Standards at oil and gas facilities and landfills, our enforcement efforts can help reduce methane emissions.

We will also use our enforcement authorities to ensure that the phasedown of HFCs occurs under the schedule required by the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (also known as the AIM Act) and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. The Kigali Amendment, implemented in the United States by the AIM Act, requires EPA to phase down production and consumption of HFCs in the United States by 85 percent by 2036. Scientists predict that the global HFC phasedown will reduce warming by .5 degrees centigrade, which is critical if we are to limit global warming to between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees centigrade.

Prior efforts to phase out ozone-depleting substances under the Montreal Protocol resulted in significant unlawful activity that required an enforcement response from EPA. We expect the same illegal activity to occur as we phase out HFCs:

  • Failure to comply with the AIM Act’s tracking system,
  • Attempts to illegally import HFCs into the United States, and
  • Sale of smuggled HFCs in the United States.

To achieve the full benefits of the Kigali Amendment, we must meet that illegal activity with a strong criminal and civil enforcement response.


Another 21st century environmental challenge is PFAS contamination. In communities across America, PFAS is present in our water, soil, air, and food, as well as in materials found in our homes and workplaces. Administrator Regan has directed EPA to use every enforcement tool at our disposal to require PFAS manufacturers to address potential endangerment to the public.

We know there will be significant PFAS work for the enforcement program, which is why we are launching our PFAS initiative even before EPA finalizes its proposed hazardous substance designation and PFAS drinking water rules. The initiative will identify the extent of PFAS exposures that pose a threat to human health and the environment and pursue responsible parties for those exposures.

We intend to focus our enforcement efforts on companies that manufactured PFAS and companies who profited from the use of PFAS in their products. We do not intend to pursue farmers who spread bio solids on their fields, municipal airports that used aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) as a flame retardant, and municipal wastewater treatment plants and municipal landfills that handled waste containing PFAS, if their conduct does not endanger others, and they meet any regulatory requirements.

Coal ash NECI

The coal ash initiative will focus on approximately 300 facilities nationwide that are collectively responsible for approximately 775 coal ash units and the threat from hundreds of millions of pounds of coal ash, also known as coal combustion residuals, or CCR. Coal ash contains multiple contaminants, including mercury, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic, all of which are associated with cancer and other serious health effects.

Noncompliance with the CCR requirements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is widespread. Many utilities are not complying with the current performance standards and monitoring and testing requirements. In addition to serious and widespread noncompliance, the CCR regulatory program is mainly a federally implemented program, with only three states currently approved to implement a regulatory program.

This initiative is critical to protecting the neighborhoods located near these facilities which are often communities with environmental justice concerns.

Modified and continuing NECIs

We have modified our air toxins initiative to add a geographical focus for the first time. Each EPA Region will identify at least two or three overburdened communities that face significant pollution from hazardous air pollution and will work with their state partners to drive down those unhealthy exposures.

We also are continuing two initiatives begun during prior administrations: our drinking water initiative and our chemical accident prevention initiative. The drinking water initiative focuses on the 50,000 community water systems across the country, providing compliance assistance to help them meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and bringing appropriate enforcement actions when they fail to meet their obligations to provide safe drinking water to residents. The chemical accident prevention initiative will target risks from anhydrous ammonia and hydrogen flouride, as we seek to protect workers, emergency responders, and frontline communities from chemical accidents.

Revitalizing EPA’s enforcement program

A strong enforcement and compliance program, that is staffed and equipped to tackle 21st century environmental problems, requires more resources than Congress has provided EPA in recent years. For that reason, I have advocated for more enforcement resources after a decade of budget cuts starting in 2011, which cost EPA approximately 950 enforcement positions nationwide, or 30 percent of our enforcement and compliance staff.

Over the last year, we have received funding that will allow us to add back approximately 300 of the enforcement positions we have lost. The FY23 Omnibus Spending law included a substantial increase for EPA’s enforcement program, at least a 16 percent increase from fiscal year 2022. The enforcement program is also receiving new resources under the Inflation Reduction Act to support our methane and HFC enforcement work. In addition, we have received a significant number of new positions through the reinstatement of the Superfund tax.

Taken together, this is the most significant increase in EPA enforcement resources in recent memory. With this much-needed influx of funding, we are hiring new inspectors and attorneys, adding back positions to support our national initiatives, and modernizing our data systems and equipment.

We already are seeing improved results. The number of onsite inspections for FY23 was the highest it has been since the pandemic—and when we include off site inspections, the total was higher than several pre-pandemic years as well. The number of case initiations and conclusions were the highest they have been since 2018. In addition, the number of criminal investigations opened during FY23 increased by 70 percent over the previous year. It will be another year or two before we see more criminal defendants charged but we expect all enforcement numbers to climb higher in the future now that EPA is back in the field, conducting inspections, opening criminal investigations, and bringing enforcement actions in communities across the United States.

Environmental justice

As we revitalize our enforcement and compliance program at EPA, we are focusing on seeking environmental justice for underserved communities. President Biden and Administrator Regan both have called on EPA to strengthen enforcement to protect communities overburdened by pollution, including those who have been historically marginalized and underserved.

EPA has demonstrated that it is willing to take early, aggressive enforcement actions in overburdened communities. Approximately 60 percent of the inspections we conducted last year were in or near communities overburdened by pollution, and 50 percent of our case conclusions were in those communities as well. Since the start of the Biden Administration, EPA has issued emergency Clean Air Act orders in the Virgin Islands, at the former Limetree facility, and in South Carolina, at the New Indy facility. EPA also has issued emergency Safe Drinking Water Act orders to public water systems in Jackson, Mississippi; Benton Harbor, Michigan; Cahokia Heights, Illinois; and Clarksburg, West Virgina.

In 2023, in the United States of America, the richest nation in the world, we should be able to assure parents that, when they turn on the tap in the morning, the water will be safe for their children to drink. Those same parents should know that, when they take their kids to school in the morning, the air will be safe for their children to breathe. Whether you enjoy those bedrock environmental protections should not depend upon your zip code. Today, too often, it still does.


Our environmental laws, passed a generation ago with overwhelming bipartisan support, provide exceptional tools for improving the lives of hardworking Americans and protecting the environment that we all cherish. But those laws are only as good as our willingness to enforce them, on a nonpartisan basis.

At EPA, we intend to pursue fair and robust enforcement and to approach our cases with heightened urgency, reflecting our commitment to addressing the gravest public health and environmental threats facing American communities. We intend to show humility and respect in our partnership with the states, so that no communities are left behind and everyone receives the benefits of environmental protection. And we intend to make a greater effort to be present and hear from communities that are overburdened by pollution, as Administrator Regan has done with his Journey to Justice tours.

A healthy environment and a sustainable future are values we all share. Everyone living in this country should be able to breathe clean air, drink safe water, and live in a community free of harm from toxic pollutants.

EPA is determined to do everything possible to make good on those profoundly human values, to deliver on the promise of America’s environmental laws, and to provide a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.