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Editorial: EPA Performance Track Program

Timeout needed

It didn't take long for the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator to halt a well-intended program that during the Bush administration rewarded companies with dubious environmental records.

Lisa P. Jackson was already quite familiar with the Performance Track program. The former head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was one of the critics of Performance Track quoted in last year's series of Inquirer articles, "Smoke and Mirrors: The Subversion of the EPA."

"I think it's just one of those window-dressing programs that has little value," Jackson said in December. Confirmed two months ago as EPA administrator, Jackson put Performance Track on hiatus Monday "so that we may evaluate and refine the program's concepts."

Good for her.

Performance Track was created with good intentions at the end of the Clinton administration to give regulatory breaks, including fewer inspections and less stringent hazardous waste disposal rules, as a reward to companies that had taken voluntary measures to become better environmental stewards.

But among Performance Track's 548 members today are some companies with terrible environment records. In fact, among Performance Track members are firms responsible for more than 100 EPA violations that have been fined $15.25 million, including a $10.25 million fine to DuPont Co. concerning a pollutant spilled into drinking water.

EPA says Performance Track participants have reduced greenhouse emissions by 310,000 tons, saved 3.7 billion gallons of water, and cut non-hazardous waste equivalent to that generated by 553,000 households. But critics say the companies responsible for those achievements shouldn't be rewarded for doing what they should be doing anyway.

Performance Track may have helped create a coziness between the EPA and the companies it was regulating, which may have been a factor in lax enforcement by the agency. The Government Accounting Office says EPA fines dropped from $292 million in 1999 to $137 million in 2007.

EPA should have been more diligent about who could become a Performance Track member. Instead, it padded its rolls with all comers for public-relations purposes.

There's nothing wrong with using the carrot, along with the stick, to give companies incentive to go beyond merely complying with environmental rules. But they need to know that getting a reward doesn't mean you won't be watched.