Enforcement and Inspection

When Your Neighbors Complain to EPA

When the EPA publishes a press release about an enforcement case, the release will likely contain a statement about how the Agency came to uncover the violations. Sometimes a routine inspection, sometimes a surprise inspection, but often you will find that the inspection was prompted by a citizen complaint. In essence, your neighbors are tattling on you. Or even more disconcerting, you might find that a competitor told on you! And the EPA encourages them!

You should know how and when the EPA listens to its citizen cops and what the Agency looks for in a complaint. Let’s pretend you want to make a compliance complaint about a facility. How would you go about it?

What the EPA Does Not Want to Hear

Primarily, the EPA does not want to hear from you if you should be reporting your environmental concern to your state or local agency or health department. (Note: Most states have similar procedures to make it easy for the public to file environmental complaints.)

Some specific things the EPA also does not want to hear about are:

  • Workplace concerns—go to OSHA
  • Wildlife issues:
    • Many of these concerns have to do with the destruction of wetlands—go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
    • Endangered species—call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
    • Wildlife issues caused by development—call your local wildlife office.
  • Food safety issues—maybe your regional EPA office, but try the Food and Drug Administration first.
  • Product safety—that’s for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
  • Gardening or Farming—best bet is to contact your local agricultural extension office.
  • Local landfills—you guessed it—your local environmental agency.
  • Noise pollution—The EPA no longer wants to hear about it—call your local government.

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Is It an Emergency—or Not So Much?

The EPA wants to hear from you right away if there is an immediate or sudden threat to people or the environment. If it is just a compliance violation—don’t cry wolf.

But how do you tell the difference?

The EPA considers it an emergency if you come upon a sudden threat to the public health or the well-being of the environment, arising from the release or potential release of oil, radioactive materials, or hazardous chemicals into the air, land, or water. You’ll find these types of emergencies at traffic accidents, events at chemical or other facilities using or manufacturing chemicals, or as a result of natural or man-made disaster events.

Environmental compliance violations that can wait for reporting are such things as:

  • Smoke or other emissions from local industrial facilities;
  • Tampering with emissions control or air-conditioning systems in automobiles;
  • Improper treatment, storage, or disposal of hazardous wastes;
  • Exceedances of pollutant limits at publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants;
  • Unpermitted dredging or filling of waters and wetlands;
  • Any unpermitted industrial activity; or
  • Late-night dumping or any criminal activity, including falsifying reports or other documents.

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What Information Does EPA Want?

So, you’ve determined that your complaint is one that the EPA would be interested in hearing about and that it is not an emergency. Now, you have to compile the information that the EPA wants in order to pursue your complaint.

This information includes:

  • Suspected violator’s name and/or the name of the company
  • The address, including city, state, and zip code
  • The date of any specific incident you are complaining about
  • Whether the violation is ongoing
  • If you have already contacted your state environmental department and that department contact if you know it
  • Some general characteristics of the suspected violation (e.g., was it accidental or intentional; did it affect land, water, air)
  • A detailed description and if you got pictures or a video
  • Directions from either the nearest intersection, main road or waterway, or navigational coordinates if applicable

What about Me?

When you make your complaint, should you include contact information?  The EPA says you don’t have to, but it would be helpful. Keep in mind that if you do provide your contact information, the EPA may share it with others involved in investigating your complaint.


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