Circumventing EPA Regulations Through Computer Programs

Ted Harrington, MJLST Staffer

In September of 2015, it was Volkswagen Group (VW). This December, it was the General Electric Company (GE) finalizing a settlement in the United States District Court in Albany. The use of computer programs or other technology to override, or “cheat,” some type of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation has become seemingly commonplace.

GE uses silicone as part of its manufacturing process, which results in volatile organic compounds and chlorinated hydrocarbons, both hazardous byproducts. The disposal of hazardous materials is closely regulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). Under this act, the EPA has delegated permitting authority to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This permitting authority allows the DEC to grant permits for the disposal of hazardous wastes in the form of an NYS Part 373 Permit.

The permit allowed GE to store hazardous waste, operate a landfill, and use two incinerators on-site at its Waterford, NY plant. The permit was originally issued in 1989, and was renewed in 1999. The two incinerators included an “automatic waste feed cutoff system” designed to keep the GE facility in compliance with RCRA and the NYS Part 373 Permit. If the incinerator reached a certain limit, the cutoff system would simply stop feeding more waste.

Between September 2006 and February 2007, the cutoff system was overridden by computer technology, or manually by GE employees, on nearly 2,000 occasions. This resulted in hazardous waste being disposed of in amounts grossly above the limits of the issued permits. In early December, GE quickly settled the claim by paying $2.25 million in civil penalties.

Beyond the extra pollution caused by GE, a broader problem is emerging—in an increasingly technological world, what can be done to prevent companies from skirting regulations using savvy computer programs? With more opportunities than ever to get around regulation using technology, is it even feasible to monitor these companies? It is virtually certain that similar instances will continue to surface, and agencies such as the EPA must be on the forefront of developing preventative technology to slow this trend.

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