Thursday, December 11, 2008

Government-sponsored Greenwashing

The third article of the Philadelphia Inquirer series on the EPA under the Bush administration deals with a program called Performance Track. This program, begun under the Clinton administration, was designed to encourage companies to improve their environmental impact voluntarily. If a company meets a series of goals, it gets positive publicity and recognition from the EPA, along with other benefits. In theory, this should give companies enough incentives to behave well (beyond the threat of enforcement) . Under the Bush administration, the program has been so poorly administered that it is difficult to determine whether member corporations are actually meeting their goals.

As early as 2005, internal records show, EPA enforcement officials discovered violations by Performance Track companies, and began to ask questions about compliance and corporate promises.

In 2006, these EPA enforcement officials prepared a confidential and comprehensive analysis of the program. The Inquirer obtained a copy.

"The data in this analysis clearly show that there is considerable non-compliance among [Performance Track] facilities and that many members who are widely touted as meeting or exceeding regulatory requirements actually do not," the analysis said.

At the time, a check of enforcement records showed six Performance Track companies with serious environmental violations and 43 with other pending formal enforcement actions....

Last year, an EPA inspector general's audit confirmed some of the enforcement division's findings. "EPA had hoped to achieve ambitious goals through Performance Track, but EPA cannot show how its program can lead to the desired outcomes," auditors wrote.

Only two of the 30 companies sampled by the inspector general met all four of the anti-pollution goals they set.

Coglianese's extensive research, some of it EPA-funded, said the EPA's claims that Performance Track is beneficial to the environment are simply rhetoric. There are no data to prove this, the Penn dean said.

In fact, said Coglianese, data show that there's little difference between the environmental records of companies that join and companies that don't.

The difference: "Companies who join Performance Track seem to do so because they seek attention," he said. They want that green EPA seal of approval....

Another critic, the advocacy group Environmental Integrity Project, studied Performance Track members' public toxic release reports. It found that seven large factories increased emissions after they joined the program - by a total of two million pounds between 2000 and 2004.

EPA officials said the study contained errors - though they have since decided to review such data to prevent this from happening again, they say.

But an Inquirer review shows that some of the same Performance Track companies that Environmental Integrity raised questions about two years ago continue to increase toxic emissions. According to EPA's latest Toxic Release Inventory data, emissions at the Verso Paper factory in Jay, Maine, have increased 160 percent since 2001, to 1.9 million pounds.

Performance Track relies on states, which enforce most federal environmental laws, to ease regulatory oversight of its members. At least 19 states partner with the program, but others remain wary - including Lisa Jackson, New Jersey's former Department of Environmental Protection chief and now chief of staff to Gov. Corzine.

"For a long time, they tried to pressure us to partner and we said no," Jackson said in October, before she became an Obama transition adviser. "I think it's just one of those window-dressing programs that has little value."

Francine Carlini, regional director for air quality in Southeastern Pennsylvania, said EPA had asked the state to dispense with some of its usual regulatory duties.

"It all sounds good . . . but you can't give away the store to get that done," she said. "Imagine if we went to a landfill and they said, 'We're in Performance Track,' and we said we wouldn't inspect them. There is kind of a disconnect here. That's the problem."
The article cites several egregious examples of Performance Track members that soiled their environment. One was a chlorine plant that emits 420 pounds of mercury each year. In another case, DuPont facilities remained in the program even after the parent corporation paid a $10.25 million fine for hiding evidence of the harmful health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid (released by many of its plants and used to manufacture Teflon) for two decades. Monsanto has also been lauded under the program despite serious violations.

Instead being used to ensure compliance, the program's $4.7 million budget seems to go towards providing government-sponsored P.R. for the member companies.
Over the last four years, Performance Track has paid two outside consulting firms more than $4.2 million.

Last year alone, records show, EPA paid ICF Consulting of Fairfax, Va., nearly $700,000, including $249,875 for member recruitment and $311,287 for "branding, outreach and communications."

The other consultant, Industrial Economics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., has received $2.7 million to help run the program and operate its hotline, records show. Spokesmen for ICF and Industrial Economics declined to comment for this story.

In 2007, EPA placed public service announcements touting its corporate members' accomplishments in Forbes, Fortune and Business Week.

One full-page ad claimed that Performance Track members cut water use by 3.5 billion gallons: "That's a big drop in the bucket," the ad said.
There should be higher priorities for the Obama administration to reform at the EPA – with implementing climate change solutions at the top of the list. However, this program seems like it could be valuable with higher standards for membership and compliance (and perhaps some assistance for companies to meet their goals) – more substance and less hype. At the very least, it is encouraging that one leading candidate to head the EPA for the next four years is already well aware of Performance Track's flaws.