Why in the aftermath of a chemical accident does the government seek enormous cash penalties for accident prevention, when instead they could do more to reap the benefits of improving the environment and the communities surrounding an incident, and at the same time the government could be more proactive in avoiding future environmental problems?
The EPA has provided the ideal vehicle to address the avoidance of environmental harm in the guise of Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs). A SEP is an environmentally beneficial project or activity that is not required by law, but that a defendant agrees to undertake as part of the settlement of an enforcement action. A violator may pay a reduced cash penalty amount, but rather than simply writing a big check, they invest the would–be penalty amount in the affected community. The SEP shifts the focus toward a model where the offender works to right the harm caused by their actions. Environmental violators are encouraged to consider SEPs in communities where there are environmental justice (EJ) concerns. EJ is defined as the equitable distribution of environmental risks and benefits. EPA has always been keen to address harms done to communities disproportionally burdened by exposure to pollutants.
After a chemical accident, it makes logical sense to seek to repair the harm done to the community and to obtain measurable benefits ― by seeking to facilitate quicker and more efficient responses associated with emergency events; by seeking to provide technical support to the impacted community; by developing plans to respond to releases associated with emergency events and by working to enhance local coordination with emergency responders. If using a SEP can be viewed as a vehicle designed to make an aggrieved community whole, and if a particular SEP can enable a community to feel better equipped to handle an impending disaster, then why shouldn’t a SEP be the premier mitigation tool in the enforcement arsenal, and the preferred tool to a large cash penalty.