Environmental Protection Agency

Recommendations and Actions

EPA01: Improve Environmental Protection Through Increased Flexibility for Local Government


Environmental laws and regulations implemented over the past decade have led to significant improvements in environmental quality. Airborne lead has decreased 98 percent since 1970, largely due to the ban on lead in gasoline.(1) Since 1983, carbon monoxide levels in the air have dropped 34 percent.(2) The Clean Water Act has dramatically improved the quality of rivers and waterways throughout the country, resulting in increased tourism, the resurgence of recreational boating and commercial fisheries, and other economic gains. Today, twice as many rivers meet quality conditions for their designated uses as did in 1974.(3)

Many of these laws, however, place a very real cost burden on local governments. Localities now struggle to comply with new requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Clean Air Act, and Superfund, with little or no prospect of significant increases in federal grants and only limited availability of loans in the future. By the year 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that local governments will need to spend nearly $44 billion annually to meet existing requirements.(4)

As the front-line managers of many environmental programs, local governments have had too little to say in the development of past environmental regulations. With the opportunity to "reinvent" the way EPA works with state and local governments, EPA has a chance to significantly increase the effectiveness of our nation's environmental programs.

One key challenge for the agency is to allow states and localities increased flexibility in environmental regulations, without compromising environmental performance, accountability, or fairness across communities. Greater flexibility may be warranted in a variety of circumstances to accommodate the diversity of environmental conditions across the country; to allow and encourage the use of more cost-effective methods to achieve the same or improved environmental outcomes; and to enable communities to more easily pursue environmental solutions across the multiple media of air, water, and land.

Local governments cite examples where failure to devise better ways to protect the environment affordably may result in just the opposite of the intended effect. In the Southwest, one city reports an increase in desert dumping of solid waste by citizens because of a refusal by the citizenry to pay to expand the local landfill in accordance with federal regulations, which require installation of double liners and a leachate collection system to comply with RCRA groundwater laws. The city questions whether the requirements are necessary in this case because of its geology and arid climatic conditions.

The problems associated with inflexible laws, regulations, and practices are exacerbated by the sheer volume of new regulations the EPA is required to implement. For example, the Safe Drinking Water Amendments of 1986 call for the testing, monitoring, and control of an additional 25 new contaminants every three years. If EPA fails to issue these new standards, it violates the federal law. At the same time, the issuance of such standards adds significant new cost burdens to local governments.

Flexibility does exist in some statutes. EPA allows the states that have been delegated the authority to manage the Safe Drinking Water Act the right to waive some of the Act's monitoring requirements. Eleven states currently operate a waiver program, and 12 others have begun to establish new waiver programs. In some cases, however, the states and the local public water systems are finding they lack the resources necessary to develop an adequate program to modify the monitoring requirements.

EPA has also begun to work with some states and local governments to conduct comparative risk assessments to help communities set priorities among competing needs. However, progress in this area varies considerably among the EPA regions, where primary responsibility exists for dealing with state and local governments, and considerable work needs to be done to translate the findings of comparative risk analysis into the day-to-day decisionmaking of EPA and its state and local partners in environmental protection.

In the financial arena, EPA has begun, through university-based environmental finance centers, to help individual communities identify innovative financial approaches to meet environmental goals. In the technical and management areas, EPA has developed model laboratory/local government cooperative ventures. EPA needs to continue to explore, promote, and expand these and other ways to achieve environmental objectives and address barriers to innovation and change, along with maximum flexibility wherever warranted.

EPA must recognize that increased regulatory flexibility offers tremendous opportunities for positive institutional change at federal, state, and local levels. Then EPA must work to take advantage of these opportunities by finding ways to allow flexibility without compromising fairness, accountability and, above all, performance. This move toward institutionalizing flexibility in regulatory processes can occur only in an atmosphere of true partnership that serves to promote and perpetuate the economic viability of local governments while protecting the health of the nation's citizenry and environment.


1. EPA should amend the regulations pursuant to the Regulatory Flexibility Act of 1980 determined to be most troublesome for local government to provide alternative and flexible approaches to meeting environmental mandates.

EPA should establish an implementation group to determine which regulations should be selected for revision. The group should obtain input from state and local governments, environmental organizations, and other stakeholders. With guidance from the group, relevant EPA program offices should begin to develop appropriate language to amend the regulations selected. The public notice of EPA's intent to amend the selected regulations should be issued by January 1, 1996. If successful, this process could set a precedent for additional flexibility in the future.

2. The EPA should convene a series of town meetings across the United States with environmental and other citizen groups and local officials to ensure that outside input is considered before regulatory reform recommendations are finalized.

The town meetings should start by January 30, 1994. One objective of these meetings should be to solicit interested stakeholders for their views on how EPA should increase its support of state, tribal, and local governments in assessing and prioritizing their ecological and community health risks.

3. The EPA should establish a pilot project that will assist one community to assess its environmental and community health risks in directing resources to priority problems.

The pilot should be established by March 1, 1994. If successful, this pilot should then serve as a model for other communities and could become the impetus for additional regulatory and, perhaps, statutory change.


In addition to promoting within EPA an understanding of the need for flexibility during rule-writing, town meetings and the process of identifying and selecting specific rules for revision are certain to increase awareness and understanding of health and environment- protecting regulations, as well as their importance.

Perhaps the greatest danger in promoting flexibility lies in the potential for some communities to use that flexibility to reduce their commitment to environmental protection for their citizens, rather than to allow the innovation that will result in improved environmental outcomes. It becomes essential, therefore, for greater flexibility to be accompanied by performance measures and clear accountability.

Fiscal Impact

Granting regulatory flexibility will not require an additional investment of resources. The implementation of the pilot program and the town meetings will impose additional costs on the agency.


1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Air Quality and Emissions Trends Report, 1991 (Washington, D.C., October 1992), sec. 1, p. 6.

2. Ibid., sec. 3, p. 2.

3. Wayland, Robert H., "What Progress in Improving Water Quality?" Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (reprint), vol. 48, number 4 (July-August 1993), pp. 262-266.

4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Environmental Investment: The Case for a Clean Environment (Washington, D.C., November 1990), sec. 8, p. 51. The $44 billion estimate is a U.S. Department of Commerce-derived extrapolation for 1993 dollars based on a 1986 figure of $32.5 billion.

Return To Report Index

Who We Are |||Latest Additions |||Initiatives |||Customer Service |||News Room |||Accomplishments |||Awards |||"How To" Tools |||Library |||Web Links

Reinvention Comments
Technical Comments