Companies that pollute are immune from prosecution if they voluntarily file secret reports with the state on their environmental violations and clear them up promptly.
Idaho’s “environmental audits” law, passed during the last legislative session, officially took effect in July. But state agencies had until this week to adopt rules laying out how the new law will work.
Supporters say the law will give companies an incentive to identify and correct environmental violations. But critics say it’ll allow violations to be swept under the rug.
Idaho is one of 14 states to enact such a law in the last two years. Wyoming has had a similar law for a year.
“I think it’s another way of encouraging companies to do a better job of regulating themselves - voluntary compliance,” said Gary Beach, Wyoming’s administrator of water quality. “So we kind of like it.”
But the law deals only with violations of state environmental laws - not federal ones.
“If there’s anything that’s kind of stymied or limited a more broad-based acceptance of this bill, it’s because of the federal government’s reluctance to recognize it,” Beach said.
A national industry lobbying group, the Coalition for Improved Environmental Audits, is pushing for federal legislation to mirror the state laws. Bills have been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House, said Peter McHugh, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents the coalition.
McHugh said industries face “an incredible labyrinth of environmental regulations” and can’t always fully comply with every rule.
“They need to be able to go through a facility and identify where they’ve made mistakes,” he said. “They need to do that candidly in order to make changes in the facility.”
But if they do, they create a “smoking gun” that regulators can use as evidence against them, McHugh said. “Then, there’s a disincentive to ever conduct the audit.”
In Wyoming, a handful of companies have come in to discuss audit results. More may be doing audits but not finding violations or choosing not to report them to the state, Beach said.
“It could be getting a lot of use and we’re not really aware.”
Idaho Division of Environmental Quality staffers said Thursday they weren’t aware of any audits coming in yet under the new state law.
Kate Crawford, a deputy attorney general for the agency, said her research into other states’ experiences shows that fear of federal intervention has limited the number of companies coming forward.
“Environmental audit laws in other states haven’t been invoked as much as people thought they would,” she said.
Karl Brooks of the Idaho Conservation League said his group will be watching the new law’s use closely.
“The question we’ll always be asking is: ‘So, will this serve the goal of getting more businesses to follow the law?”’ he said.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NEW ENVIRONMENTAL RULES The state can’t force companies to turn over their internal environmental audits. Those voluntarily reporting violations of state environmental laws are immune from civil and criminal penalties for the violations, including jail. This applies only if the companies move promptly to correct the violations. The immunity won’t apply if a court finds that the violations are part of a three-year pattern of serious, repeated violations. Audit reports given voluntarily to the state will be kept secret unless the governor decides to disclose the information due to an “imminent and substantial danger to the public health or the environment.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.