Penalizing a polluter that has violated environmental laws may be a deterrent but doesn’t do anything to compensate those affected by the violation.
A unique tool being used more often by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) can both correct the violation, and help affected communities that have been harmed by the pollution.
During inspections of facilities regulated by state and federal environmental laws, EGLE staff may identify violations which lead to escalated enforcement. Such enforcement happens for many reasons, including the frequency, duration and impact to public health and the environment from the violations.
When EGLE enters into an enforcement action, the action typically results in a legally binding agreement between the State of Michigan and the alleged violator that includes a monetary penalty, a compliance plan and sometimes a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP).
A SEP is a community project identified by the alleged violator benefiting public health and/or the environment. In a SEP, an alleged violator agrees to undertake a project as part of the settlement of an enforcement action. The project goes beyond what is legally required to comply with state and federal laws, and the benefits of the SEP go back to the community affected by the alleged violations.
During escalated enforcement, EGLE encourages violators to consider a Supplemental Environmental Project, which provides Michigan communities and ecosystems with direct environmental benefits. These projects can cover a wide range of environmental improvements such as habitat restoration, helping school districts retrofit older school buses to use clean-diesel technology or installing electric vehicle charging stations.
"When a company proposes a quality SEP, the community affected by the violation gets a direct benefit instead of money going into the state's general fund," said Jenine Camilleri, Air Quality Division (AQD) Enforcement Unit Supervisor. "Our division's enforcement staff encourage the use of SEPs at every opportunity. SEPs are a way for alleged violators to work with their community to create truly beneficial projects."
To ensure projects are beneficial and meet specific criteria, EGLE has a policy to govern how a SEP is approved. The policy has recently been updated to allow for flexibility and to encourage the use of more SEPs during escalated enforcement.
AQD's Enforcement Unit has created a new webpage focused on SEPs and the criteria that must be met. A SEP must include at least one of the following criteria:
Projects can include activities to improve air quality, reduce hazardous waste, encourage more efficient use of resources, improve water quality, or reduce or clean up solid waste. A few examples of recent SEPs agreed to by EGLE include demolition of blighted properties, installation of air filtration equipment at schools, planting of tree buffers to reduce impacts of emissions from vehicles and replacing streetlights with LEDs to improve nighttime brightness and reduce electrical demand. Past SEPs have met one or more of the necessary criteria and all of them benefitted the community where alleged violations occurred. The webpage includes additional examples of SEPs meeting one of more of the above criteria.
"We hope alleged violators and communities will use this resource to partner together to create SEPs in the future," Camilleri said. "We want to make proposing a quality SEP something that becomes a more common occurrence as part of reach a resolution in enforcement actions in Michigan."