EPA isn't going after pollution scofflaws, agency's critics say

In ''Ghostbusters,'' one of this summer's biggest movie hits, an official of the Environmental Protection Agency turns out to be a principal villain. He insists that star Bill Murray's ''ghost containment'' facility is an illegal hazardous waste dump, and tries to close it down - launching a disastrous series of events.

But in real life, EPA enforcement may not be quite that zealous. EPA chief William Ruckelshaus, in January, complained that agency enforcers were ''pussycats.'' Critics charge that this laxity has led to upwards of 80 percent noncompliance with some pollution laws.

''Noncompliance is a problem. It's not 80 percent, but it's a problem,'' Mr. Ruckelshaus said at a recent breakfast with reporters.

The Environmental Protection Agency's timid attitude toward enforcement, say critics, can be traced to the tumultuous years when Anne Burford ruled the agency.

Mrs. Burford firmly believed that states, in many instances, could do better than the federal government at protecting the environment. Accordingly, she tried to delegate more of EPA's cop-on-the-beat duties to state environmental agencies. (For most environmental laws, states share enforcement responsibility with Washington.)

EPA's enforcement division was dismantled, its officials scattered to the far corners of the agency. Enforcement activity, as measured by the number of people sued, slowed: EPA referred 88 cases of egregious polluters to the Justice Department in 1981, down from 241 referrals in 1980.

''There was this real reluctance to get in there and duke it out,'' says Jonathan Lash, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Faced with money problems, however, the states were struggling to hold their own, much less make up for EPA's sudden quiesence. In the early '80s, one-third of the states cut their air-pollution inspection programs, for instance.

The result, EPA critics say, has been an increase in pollution scofflaws. A number of studies support this charge:

* Eighty-two percent of major sewage dischargers are illegally polluting US waters, according to a 1983 General Accounting Office (GAO) report.

* Seventy-eight percent of toxic-waste dump operators are not monitoring the ground water under their sites as required by law, says another '83 GAO report.

* Seventy-five percent of stationary sources of air pollution checked by a new laser radar were breaking emission limits, according to an internal EPA memo.

''How meaningful can a law be when four-fifths of those it is supposed to cover are violating it?'' says William Drayton, a Carter-era EPA official and author of a report on compliance with US toxic laws.

EPA, however, disagrees with these figures. The laser radar study of air pollution sources, Ruckelshaus says, was an experiment that focused only on suspected violators - hence its finding of 75 percent noncompliance. Compliance with all air-pollution laws is in the 85-to-95 percent range, says an EPA spokesman.

EPA officials say sewage dischargers are a problem - but not nearly the problem GAO found them to be. Using a different definition of ''compliance,'' EPA says 19 percent of municipal sewer systems and 8 percent of industrial dischargers are violating the Clean Water Act.

Environmentalists complain that all polluters must do to be counted as in compliance by EPA is promise to clean up, instead of actually act.

Agency officials from Ruckelshaus on down admit that enforcement is still not as tough as it should be. After Mrs. Burford's departure, EPA enforcement moves remained few and far between. They have begun to pick up only in the last few months.

The agency referred 77 pollution cases to the Justice Department for prosecution in the second quarter of this year, up from 23 referrals in the first quarter. Administrative orders, a less drastic enforcement measure, went from 402 in the first quarter of '84 to 712 in the second quarter.

''We've made a significant amount of progress in increasing the agency enforcement presence and resources,'' says Courtney Price, EPA assistant administrator for enforcement. ''There is still very much progress to be made.''

Next: The EPA is behind in implementing polluton laws, setting standards, and writing permits.

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