- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

In the early 1990s, Coors Brewing Company voluntarily launched an audit of its operations to ensure that it was complying with the vast array of environmental laws that applied to it. In the process, it discovered a Clean Air Act violation that probably wouldn't have been discovered otherwise. The company reported the problem to Colorado officials charged with overseeing the law, and it took steps to correct the problem. For demonstrating such environmental good will and corporate citizenship, Coors received … a big fine from the state of Colorado.
Hundreds of miles to the east in the small city of Bluefield, W.Va., Pete Bellini, owner of Pete's Refrigeration, discovered that he had committed a minor Clean Air Act violation while repairing automobile air conditioners. Mr. Bellini corrected his mistake at no charge to consumers and notified the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For his environmental good works, he received … a $4,000 fine from the feds.
It is cases like these that have led some two dozen states to reform their handling of errors discovered through self-initiated "environmental audits." The obvious question was why companies would go to all the trouble of detecting their own mistakes and reporting them to authorities mistakes, it's worth noting again, that government officials would probably never have discovered only to be punished as though they were the moral and legal equivalent of "midnight dumpers." Questions like that led former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, and former Colorado Attorney General Gale Norton, a Republican, to support reforms that would credit companies for coming forward to disclose and correct environmental violations. As Mrs. Norton said in a statement submitted to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, the 1994 audit law is an "environmental gain because it results in violations being discovered and corrected, violations that probably would not have been found absent an audit."
Mrs. Norton is under scrutiny these days as President-elect George Bush's nominee to head the U.S. Department of the Interior. Journalists have carelessly or carefully misreported how the audits work. Said ABC's Linda Douglass Sunday, "Gale Norton … is an ideological appointment. It is the ideology, perhaps, of drilling for oil and gas in the Alaska Wildlife Refuge. It is the ideology of allowing companies to police themselves when it comes to pollution."
Self-policing? There is nothing in the law that says companies are answerable only to themselves when it comes to complying with the law. What Colorado's law does do is grant firms limited immunity, Mrs. Norton said, from fines for disclosures of civil, administrative and criminal negligence when the violation is discovered in a self-audit and corrected. No correction, no immunity. On the same basis, the law also allows companies not to disclose some documents in legal proceedings. But as noted by Ben Lieberman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who has written widely on the issue of environmental audits, there are exceptions for serious, life-threatening or deliberate violations.
Democrats out to make this a partisan debate won't find it easy. In an opinion issued in April, the current Colorado Attorney General and only statewide-elected Democrat, Ken Salazar, defended the law, saying, "Colorado's self-evaluation law creates an incentive for companies to come into compliance with the environmental laws of our state and country."
Ironically the Clinton administration acknowledged in a 1995 report, "Reinventing Environmental Regulation," the "adversarial approach that has often characterized our environmental system precludes opportunities for creative solutions that a more collaborative system might encourage." It continued, "Washington, D.C. is not the source of all answers." Unfortunately EPA hasn't gotten the word. It has vigorously opposed reforms by threatening suits of its own against self-auditors, using their own disclosures as blueprints to prosecute them.
With bipartisan help from the likes of Mr. Salazar, the Bush administration can convince regulators that Washington really isn't the source of all answers. What EPA loses in the process will be the environment's gain.
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