Research Spotlight: Environmental injustice in Clean Water Act enforcement: Racial and income disparities in inspection time

Race and income-based disparities often manifest themselves as delays in policy delivery. For example, discrepancies exist in the speed and depth of disaster recovery assistance efforts across different communities. In the area of health care, the race of the patient has been associated with longer wait times in emergency rooms. There is also mixed evidence for the association between emergency vehicle response times and demographics of the neighborhood. Given the pervasiveness of ‘delay’ as a mechanism of policy disparity, there is little reason to doubt that a similar mechanism could be at work at the core of minority and poor communities’ experiences with disproportionate environmental burdens.

In our recently published study in Environmental Research Letters, we argue that uneven enforcement manifests as inspection delays and is driven by community demographics. We analyze the length of time it takes for government officials to inspect a facility in order to examine enforcement disparities across demographics. In other words, we focus on enforcement disparities as a source of environmental injustice and argue that ‘time-to-inspection’ is a fruitful new approach to analyzing government performance on environmental enforcement. 

Our study focusses on the administration of the EPA’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) 6700 regulated facilities under the U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA). In the U.S., state agencies carry out over 90% of all enforcement actions of both federal air and water regulation. So the states offer a particularly ripe venue to explore whether uneven government enforcement of environmental law is driven by community demographics. But, why might inspection response times to regulatory facilities be driven by community characteristics?

Government inspectors face resource constraints for performing compliance monitoring and they must make choices about where to invest effort. We argue that inspectors may invest less effort in environmental justice communities because these communities tend to have fewer political resources to mobilize for government attention and prioritization. Accordingly, we expect that inspections for facilities located in Black, Hispanic, and high-poverty areas would be longer compared to facilities located in predominantly White or lower-poverty areas.

Using statistical methods, we find that state regulators’ inspection response times are faster toward noncompliant facilities in general. Inspectors arrive about 3 weeks, or 21 days, earlier when a facility is listed as noncompliant. However, these numbers mask differences across communities of different color and income. In wealthy communities, agents inspect noncompliant CWA facilities more rapidly. Our model estimates that, compared to facilities that are compliant, non-compliant ones in wealthier communities are visited nearly 70 days sooner. This response wains as poverty increases until around 20% of the neighborhood lives in poverty — beyond this threshold, agents wait longer to inspect noncompliant facilities in poor neighborhoods.

A similar dynamic exists with respect to Hispanic communities. In communities with near zero Hispanics, state agencies inspect noncompliant CWA facilities more rapidly, around 22 days sooner. Agency responsiveness, however, attenuates as the percentage of Hispanics increases up to approximately 27% of the community, at which point agencies no longer appear to distinguish between facilities based on their compliance status. In heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, noncompliant facilities wait the same amount of time for their next inspection as compliant ones. In Black communities, our data suggest that state agents do not differentiate between compliant and noncompliant CWA facilities when planning inspections in Black communities. Collectively, these results indicate that state regulators are not prioritizing CWA facilities that violate performance requirements when those facilities are located in environmental justice communities.

Our study argues that a meaningful way to understand enforcement disparities is to consider the time between government-conducted compliance monitoring inspections. As a measure of government responsiveness, ours provides a useful indicator of how government officials prioritize their enforcement effort. We argue that scholars and agencies alike ought to consider inspection response time as an important metric of performance. Although the findings here are limited to the case of major sources under the CWA, we think the general approach is a compelling way for scholars to evaluate inequities in other areas, such as air pollution and safe drinking water, with respect to other types of facilities, and in policy areas beyond the environmental context. Future work might expand our study to other policy outputs where differential delay may appear, such as in the issuing of licenses or permits.

The findings here are also informative for public policy. One of the difficult hurdles with addressing environmental inequities is that policy solutions to disproportionate siting and unequal pollution burdens are the legacy of historical practices. In this sense, there are no quick or easy fixes. Regulatory enforcement, however, is an area where government agencies already possess the necessary levers to blunt the effect of such inequities. By changing priorities and facility targeting, government agencies can better mitigate disparities in environmental outcomes through changes in their internal enforcement practices.

Our research was made possible with the support of grants by the National Science Foundation (SES-1425883 and SES-1551617) and by FSU’s COFRS program.

David Konisky: : Faculty: Profiles: Faculty Directory: Faculty & Research:  Directory: Indiana University

Dr. David Konisky is a Professor at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. You can learn more about Dr. Konisky here.

Dr. Christopher Reenock is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Florida State University Department of Political Science. You can learn more about Dr. Reenock here.


Dr. Shannon Conley is an Associate Instructor at the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs. You can learn more about Dr. Conley here.

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