United States: EPA Brings Self-Disclosure Process Into The 21st Century, Adding More Transparency

The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently modernized its implementation of its two primary self-disclosure incentive policies – the Audit Policy and the Small Business Compliance Policy – by creating a centralized, web-based "eDisclosure" portal to receive and automatically process regulated entities' self-disclosed civil violations of environmental law.  The Audit Policy and Small Business Compliance Policy provide penalty mitigation and other incentives for large and small businesses that discover, promptly disclose and expeditiously correct environmental violations and take steps to prevent future violations.  According to EPA, the automated eDisclosure system will make the processing of more routine voluntary disclosures faster and more efficient, and save time and resources for both regulated entities and EPA.  Nonetheless, while efficiency is desirable for public and private parties alike, potential users of the new system should bear in mind that self-disclosure of a violation to EPA is the last step in a multi-part and often complicated process of information collection, risk evaluation and decision-making that is best undertaken with the assistance of experienced environmental consultants and legal counsel.

In the future, all self-disclosed civil violations (except for disclosures under EPA's New Owner Policy) must be made through the eDisclosure portal.  Entities that disclose potential violations through the portal may qualify for one of two types of automated treatment, Category 1 or Category 2.  Category 1 disclosure is available only for minor violations of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act ("EPCRA").  For Category 1 disclosures, the eDisclosure system automatically issues an electronic Notice of Determination ("eNOD") confirming that the violations have been resolved with no assessment of civil penalties, on the condition that the certified eDisclosure is accurate and complete.

Category 2 Disclosures include all non-EPCRA violations, EPCRA violations where the entity can certify compliance with all of the Audit Policy's nine conditions except that the method of violation discovery was systematic, violations of CERCLA § 103/EPCRA § 304's chemical release reporting requirements, and EPCRA violations with "significant economic benefit" (as defined by EPA).  For these disclosures, the eDisclosure system automatically issues an electronic Acknowledgement Letter confirming EPA's receipt of the disclosure and promising that EPA will make a determination regarding eligibility for penalty mitigation if and when it considers taking an enforcement action for environmental violations.

EPA stated in its December 9, 2015 Federal Register notice announcing the launch of the eDisclosure portal that it "is not modifying the substantive conditions in its Audit Policy or Small Business Compliance Policy."  However, anyone considering using the eDisclosure portal to self-report a civil violation of environmental law needs to be aware that EPA has significantly changed its longstanding approach to responding to Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") requests for such disclosures. 

Since 1997, EPA has deemed resolved voluntary disclosures under the Audit Policy and Small Business Compliance Policy publicly releasable under FOIA.  The agency will continue to take this approach to Category 1 disclosures submitted through the eDisclosure portal.  Specifically, it will grant FOIA requests for eNODs issued for Category 1 disclosures in most cases. 

However, EPA's handling of unresolved voluntary disclosures will shift 180 degrees going forward.  Until now, EPA has generally withheld unresolved disclosures pursuant to FOIA's "law enforcement proceeding" exemption, Exemption 7(A).  This exemption protects from disclosure "records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings ...."  Now, simultaneous with its implementation of the eDisclosure portal, EPA has eliminated its practice of withholding unresolved disclosures and replaced it with a presumption in favor of releasing regulated entities' voluntary disclosure information to the public.  In responding to FOIA requests for individual unresolved disclosures, EPA now will determine on a case-by-case basis whether it "reasonably foresees that release would harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption."  In doing so, it will aim "to be as accommodating as possible in responding to such requests," with the result that it "generally expects to make Category 1 and Category 2 disclosures publicly available within a relatively short period of time after their receipt."

As the agency explains it, this policy shift is consistent with the 2009 memoranda from President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in favor of federal government transparency.  Nonetheless, it could reduce the perceived benefits of the Audit Policy and Small Business Compliance Policy for some in the regulated community and provide a disincentive to self-report.  Moreover, at least one commentator has suggested that EPA's new willingness to release information in response to FOIA requests may "fuel...  private attorney general litigations."  This could be particularly problematic where EPA releases disclosure information through a FOIA request before it has determined whether in fact the business in question is eligible for penalty mitigation or will not be a target of enforcement action. Although EPA is trying to reassure the regulated community that this policy change will not result in more citizen suits, potential eDisclosure portal users are legitimately concerned about such arguably premature releases of disclosure information, and should carefully evaluate their circumstances before making any disclosure, especially under Category 2.

The potential for the release of unresolved disclosures to cause harm to eDisclosure users could be further exacerbated as an unintended result of the expansion of intergovernmental data exchanges such as the Environmental Information Exchange Network, a partnership of states, territories, tribes and EPA working to provide increased access to high-quality environmental data.  Users of the eDisclosure system may have cause to worry that if they disclose unrelated minor violations to EPA over time, private plaintiffs may use these reports to try to establish a pattern of bad behavior where it does not exist.  Defending against such efforts in the legal and media arenas could be costly for businesses that are simply trying to "do the right thing."

In sum, by introducing the eDisclosure system, EPA has streamlined the self-disclosure process for certain environmental violations, which likely will reduce the time and expense involved in making such disclosures.  However, EPA has not provided any additional detail or direction for businesses to use in determining whether a specific violation meets the substantive criteria of the Audit Policy or Small Business Compliance Policy.  This determination – and the ultimate decision of whether disclosure will be beneficial – should be made with careful consideration of the relevant facts and applicable law, under the guidance of knowledgeable environmental consultants and legal counsel.

Published in the TerraLex Connections Newsletter (January 2017)

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
McLane Middleton, Professional Association
Seyfarth Shaw LLP
Dickinson Wright PLLC
 
In association with
Related Topics
 
Similar Articles
Relevancy Powered by MondaqAI
McLane Middleton, Professional Association
Seyfarth Shaw LLP
Dickinson Wright PLLC
Related Articles
 
Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
 
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Position
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Accounting
 Anti-trust
 Commercial
 Compliance
 Consumer
 Criminal
 Employment
 Energy
 Environment
 Family
 Finance
 Government
 Healthcare
 Immigration
 Insolvency
 Insurance
 International
 IP
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Litigation
 Media & IT
 Privacy
 Real Estate
 Strategy
 Tax
 Technology
 Transport
 Wealth Mgt
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates
Registration (you must scroll down to set your data preferences)

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including your content preferences, for three primary purposes (full details of Mondaq’s use of your personal data can be found in our Privacy and Cookies Notice):

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting to show content ("Content") relevant to your interests.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, news alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our content providers ("Contributors") who contribute Content for free for your use.

Mondaq hopes that our registered users will support us in maintaining our free to view business model by consenting to our use of your personal data as described below.

Mondaq has a "free to view" business model. Our services are paid for by Contributors in exchange for Mondaq providing them with access to information about who accesses their content. Once personal data is transferred to our Contributors they become a data controller of this personal data. They use it to measure the response that their articles are receiving, as a form of market research. They may also use it to provide Mondaq users with information about their products and services.

Details of each Contributor to which your personal data will be transferred is clearly stated within the Content that you access. For full details of how this Contributor will use your personal data, you should review the Contributor’s own Privacy Notice.

Please indicate your preference below:

Yes, I am happy to support Mondaq in maintaining its free to view business model by agreeing to allow Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors whose Content I access
No, I do not want Mondaq to share my personal data with Contributors

Also please let us know whether you are happy to receive communications promoting products and services offered by Mondaq:

Yes, I am happy to received promotional communications from Mondaq
No, please do not send me promotional communications from Mondaq
Terms & Conditions

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd (Mondaq). Mondaq grants you a non-exclusive, revocable licence to access the Website and associated services, such as the Mondaq News Alerts (Services), subject to and in consideration of your compliance with the following terms and conditions of use (Terms). Your use of the Website and/or Services constitutes your agreement to the Terms. Mondaq may terminate your use of the Website and Services if you are in breach of these Terms or if Mondaq decides to terminate the licence granted hereunder for any reason whatsoever.

Use of www.mondaq.com

To Use Mondaq.com you must be: eighteen (18) years old or over; legally capable of entering into binding contracts; and not in any way prohibited by the applicable law to enter into these Terms in the jurisdiction which you are currently located.

You may use the Website as an unregistered user, however, you are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the Content or to receive the Services.

You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these Terms or with the prior written consent of Mondaq. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information from the Content. Nor shall you extract information about users or Contributors in order to offer them any services or products.

In your use of the Website and/or Services you shall: comply with all applicable laws, regulations, directives and legislations which apply to your Use of the Website and/or Services in whatever country you are physically located including without limitation any and all consumer law, export control laws and regulations; provide to us true, correct and accurate information and promptly inform us in the event that any information that you have provided to us changes or becomes inaccurate; notify Mondaq immediately of any circumstances where you have reason to believe that any Intellectual Property Rights or any other rights of any third party may have been infringed; co-operate with reasonable security or other checks or requests for information made by Mondaq from time to time; and at all times be fully liable for the breach of any of these Terms by a third party using your login details to access the Website and/or Services

however, you shall not: do anything likely to impair, interfere with or damage or cause harm or distress to any persons, or the network; do anything that will infringe any Intellectual Property Rights or other rights of Mondaq or any third party; or use the Website, Services and/or Content otherwise than in accordance with these Terms; use any trade marks or service marks of Mondaq or the Contributors, or do anything which may be seen to take unfair advantage of the reputation and goodwill of Mondaq or the Contributors, or the Website, Services and/or Content.

Mondaq reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to take any action that it deems necessary and appropriate in the event it considers that there is a breach or threatened breach of the Terms.

Mondaq’s Rights and Obligations

Unless otherwise expressly set out to the contrary, nothing in these Terms shall serve to transfer from Mondaq to you, any Intellectual Property Rights owned by and/or licensed to Mondaq and all rights, title and interest in and to such Intellectual Property Rights will remain exclusively with Mondaq and/or its licensors.

Mondaq shall use its reasonable endeavours to make the Website and Services available to you at all times, but we cannot guarantee an uninterrupted and fault free service.

Mondaq reserves the right to make changes to the services and/or the Website or part thereof, from time to time, and we may add, remove, modify and/or vary any elements of features and functionalities of the Website or the services.

Mondaq also reserves the right from time to time to monitor your Use of the Website and/or services.

Disclaimer

The Content is general information only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice or seek to be the complete and comprehensive statement of the law, nor is it intended to address your specific requirements or provide advice on which reliance should be placed. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the Content for any purpose. All Content provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq and/or its Contributors and other suppliers hereby exclude and disclaim all representations, warranties or guarantees with regard to the Content, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Mondaq expressly excludes all representations, warranties, obligations, and liabilities arising out of or in connection with all Content. In no event shall Mondaq and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use of the Content or performance of Mondaq’s Services.

General

Mondaq may alter or amend these Terms by amending them on the Website. By continuing to Use the Services and/or the Website after such amendment, you will be deemed to have accepted any amendment to these Terms.

These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions