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Poor Performance

EPA's program to reward environmental excellence gets a bad review

by Cheryl Hogue
April 23, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 17

Credibility Concerns
Credit: gettyimages
Some facilities recognized by an EPA program to reward environmental excellence have increased their toxic releases.
Credit: gettyimages
Some facilities recognized by an EPA program to reward environmental excellence have increased their toxic releases.

THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency needs to reform a voluntary program designed to recognize facilities for environmental excellence, EPA's inspector general says in a new report.

The agency's internal auditor agrees with environmental groups that have criticized the National Environmental Performance Track program for rewarding participating facilities with fewer inspections even when they boost emissions of toxic chemicals (C&EN, Sept. 11, 2006, page 26). The report, released March 30, has drawn attention from some members of Congress who are skeptical about continuing to fund the voluntary program.

Private and federal facilities with clean enforcement records can join Performance Track by setting three or four specific environmental goals—such as reducing water use—that they will meet during their three-year membership period. In return, EPA gives national recognition and fewer inspections to those facilities. The program began in 2000 and has about 470 members, ranging from chemical manufacturing plants to paper mills to military installations.

The inspector general's report raises questions about Performance Track's credibility. The report faults EPA for simply equating membership in Performance Track with leadership in protecting the environment.

"There is no evidence that members differ materially from nonmembers in environmental performance," the report states. "EPA has not compared member facilities with their peers for environmental performance indicators to determine if members lead in their sectors."

"Although many members do perform above average, Performance Track does not know if its members are 'top performers,' despite public claims to the contrary," the report adds. EPA needs to show to the public whether and how facilities' environmental performance changes after they join the program, the report recommends.

John D. Walke, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls the report, "a devastating indictment." It shows that "the actual environmental performance of the program is pretty shoddy," he tells C&EN.

In its investigation, the inspector general's office examined a sample of 27 Performance Track facilities. Four of those 27 facilities in its sample increased their emissions of chemicals on EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) after they joined Performance Track, the report says.

This finding echoes a 2006 report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) saying some Performance Track facilities released more pollution than before they signed up for the program. EIP, which advocates for more effective enforcement of environmental laws, is seeking reform of Performance Track.

In addition, the inspector general's investigation found that five of the 27 facilities in the sample of Performance Track facilities had higher-than-average TRI emissions for their industrial sector.

This creates a problem for a program that trumpets a facility's environmental excellence, the report says. "Program criteria may deem an applicant a top performer, but this designation may not hold true when the facility is compared with other facilities in its sector," the inspector general's report says.

The program's credibility also is threatened when Performance Track facilities run into problems complying with environmental regulations, the report says. The program has not imposed consequences on participants when they run afoul of environmental laws. However, the agency has declined to renew some memberships because of enforcement problems.

The inspector general's office found that 20% of current Performance Track members had significant violations of environmental regulations during the past five years. If those violations were pending when the facilities had applied for membership, they would not have been accepted into the program, the report notes.

EPA should "establish criteria for removing members from the program when compliance or toxic releases change—independent of sector-wide changes," the report says.

Eric Schaeffer, founder and executive director of EIP, believes the agency shouldn't immediately kick facilities out of Performance Track when they have violations. Staying in compliance with a myriad of environmental regulations "is pretty darn hard," especially for big facilities, says Schaeffer, former director of regulatory enforcement at EPA. He suggests that participants having violations get put into a special membership category with fewer rewards and given a set time to fix their problems.

The inspector general's report traces most of the problems found in Performance Track back to the creation of the program. EPA failed to link the recognition it gives to members with "outcomes such as innovation, improved methods for environmental protection, and results beyond compliance." Because the program lacks a cohesive strategy, "EPA cannot show how its program can lead to the desired outcomes," the report says.

The program cannot demonstrate that all of the requirements for membership in Performance Track are generating environmental results, the report continues. In particular, there is no link between a facility's environmental results and provisions for members to have an environmental management system in place and to interact with the public, it says.

Schaeffer is particularly critical of the requirement for members to have an environmental management system. The agency, he argues, shouldn't get involved with the internal operations of a facility by requiring management systems. Instead, EPA needs to focus on an environmental end—"what's coming out of the pipe, what's coming out of the plant," he says—and allow each business to determine how to achieve it.

IN ADDITION, Performance Track needs to set targets for facilities that are linked squarely to major environmental protection goals such as cleaner air and water or reduced TRI emissions, Schaeffer tells C&EN. Current requirements for membership are too "open-ended," allowing a facility to choose its own environmental targets. For example, a paper mill in Performance Track may opt to recycle its pulp waste, which Schaeffer says is a noteworthy goal, but it is not as significant to public health goals as curbing the facility's water pollution.

In the wake of the report, some congressional leaders are expressing leeriness about Performance Track, in part because it is an agency-devised program not mandated by law. They are especially concerned because the agency's budget is shrinking, and EPA has fewer funds to spend on programs, such as Superfund, that Congress created.

Performance Track is "a shocking waste," says Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), chair of the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Environment & Hazardous Materials. The program gets funding of about $6 million annually, he adds.

"Instead of providing funding for corporate perks, we should use this money to fund core environmental programs to clean up Superfund sites, leaking underground storage tanks, and brownfields and to fund drinking water infrastructure," Wynn says.

Meanwhile, the inspector general's report warns that reform of Performance Track is essential to its survival.

Members report that the most valuable payback for participating in Performance Track is recognition from EPA, according to the report. "Performance Track offers a valuable brand of recognition. Issuing this recognition to underachievers does not maintain the value of the brand," it says.

Agency officials have agreed to make changes to the Performance Track program, and some signs are already apparent. EPA's Performance Track website now says the program "recognizes top environmental performance" by participating facilities. In contrast, the agency some six months ago said Performance Track "recognizes and rewards facilities that consistently exceed regulatory requirements, work closely with their communities, and excel in protecting the environment and public health."

The inspector general's report is available at


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