In 2019, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality issued 247 enforcement notices – essentially penalties for violating environmental regulations. According to Kieran O’Donnell, Compliance and Enforcement Manager, that is the most DEQ has ever issued in a year. “Penalties are DEQ’s main tool to enforce the law,” Kieran says, “and it generates good environmental results.”
Kieran walked me through the lifecycle of an enforcement action, or penalty.
- Identification of a violation. Violations are found in a number of ways. DEQ inspectors identify violations by making announced or unannounced compliance inspections, visiting a site based on a complaint and review reports from facilities. Most permit holders are required to self-report when they violate their permit. Failure to do so can result in additional penalties.
- Referral to the Office of Compliance and Enforcement. DEQ inspectors follow agency guidance about which violation to refer to enforcement staff to evaluate for penalties. Some smaller violations can be addressed as field citations where the recipient of the citation can fix the violation, document the fix, and send evidence of compliance to DEQ without further enforcement.
- Evaluation of the penalty. Penalties sent to enforcement staff are evaluated based on an equation written in law. This equation incorporates various factors, including severity of the violation, prior violations, whether the violation has been corrected and any economic benefit the respondent gained by not complying. “Evaluation of economic benefit is how the law levels the playing field,” Kieran says, “so no facility is making more money by not having the controls needed to comply and protect human health and the environment.”
- Issuing the penalty. When a penalty is issued, DEQ includes in it expectations for how the violator will address the violation, any documentation that should be provided as evidence of compliance and the amount of the fine.
- Violator complies with the penalty. The violator can simply pay the fine and comply with the conditions and that can be the end. Over 90% of fines go to the general fund, a statewide pot. Violators are also allowed to direct up to 80% of their fine to a Supplemental Environmental Project where the money goes to support a project with an environmental benefit. For example, some air quality violators in Klamath County have put their fines toward wood stove change-out programs that give people money to exchange their old wood stoves for new, cleaner-burning ones or gas stoves that emit less or no particulate matter.
Violations are DEQ’s last stand for compliance. Recently, DEQ issued the largest air quality fine in history – $1.3 million, most of which was for the economic benefit the company received by not installing and maintaining the needed controls.
“Penalties are a deterrent,” Kieran said. “Not only for the violator of the penalty but for others with that same permit who see enforcement happen.”
– Lauren Wirtis, public affairs specialist