The Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration yesterday announced a joint crackdown on businesses that violate federal environmental and safety laws.
EPA said it was working on similar agreements with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Securities and Exchange Commission to help with enforcement of the recently enacted Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
The EPA-OSHA agreement effectively breaks down the wall that has separated the enforcement efforts of the two agencies since they were created by Congress 20 years ago. The agreement also comes at a time when the Bush administration has stepped up enforcement efforts in the two areas.
Two initial targets of the new enforcement efforts will be the petrochemical and lead smelting industries. But agency officials said the list would not be confined to these areas.
Gerard F. Scannell, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA, called the enforcement pact "a historic, precedent-setting agreement" because it provides the two agencies with a much broader enforcement road map than anything previously attempted.
James M. Strock, the assistant EPA administrator in charge of enforcement, said the agreement would "present a united front" to business and industry. He said the Superfund law and the new clean air act changes make "enforcement . . . an extremely high priority at the agency."
Strock also noted that under federal environmental law EPA has the power to seek criminal prosecution in the case of certain workplace injuries. OSHA has no power to assess criminal penalties, but there have been some moves in Congress to make some violations of federal safety laws criminal rather than civil penalties.
"I suspect it will probably come up in the future," Scannell said yesterday.
Under the laws creating the two agencies, EPA is charged with protecting the public health and the environment outside the work site and OSHA is charged with enforcing federal health and safety laws in the workplace. Unlike most other regulatory agencies, OSHA and EPA have broad jurisdictions that cross industry boundaries and have the power to prescribe specific corrective actions.
The new agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, spells out the two agencies' areas of responsibility and sets down the guidelines for coordinating enforcement. The agreement provides for an exchange of information, data and training and the referrals of possible violations of OSHA and EPA laws by inspectors from either agency.
OSHA and EPA inspectors will undergo cross training to help them recognize violations of environmental and health and safety laws. Under the new arrangement, for example, an EPA inspector who notices a violation of worker protection laws can notify OSHA and vice versa.
Strock said the agreement could be particularly helpful to EPA because workers often are the first to known about an illegal emission from the plant they work in.
The two agencies are currently developing a "joint workplan" for inspecting specific industries in the coming year. Scannell and Strock said they plan to develop annual work plans in the years ahead.
Although the agreement is perishable because it is not part of the law governing either EPA or OSHA, Scannell said the actions to be taken under the new agreement were "an attempt to institutionalize this."
Scannell said he first began working with Strock on the idea of joint enforcement efforts last January and denied there was any pressure from congressional committees looking into the operations of the two agencies.
In their 20 years of coexistence, the two agencies -- often mirroring the distrust between environmentalists and organized labor -- have not been known for their cooperation with each other. Scannell said yesterday he did not think cooperation between government agencies was rare, but he acknowledged that "I think it's rare between these two agencies."
As part of the memorandum of understanding, the two agencies agreed to exchange their published telephone numbers in the various regions of the country. Scannell and Strock said this was signal to regional officials that they were expected to cooperate.