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The Benefits of Collaborative Supplemental Environmental Projects

by Langdon Marsh and Monica Kirk

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For a long time, EPA and most states have recognized that enforcement actions can lead to beneficial actions, beyond getting the violator into compliance. Enforcement officials have created Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEPs) to allow violators to reduce penalties by voluntarily undertaking actions that benefit the environment. A recent report argues that greater use of collaborative approaches in developing and implementing SEPs with meaningful community involvement can provide significant benefits for the community, the violator, and the enforcement agency.

Using SEPs to Help Communities Solve Problems

Some SEPs have actively engaged members of the community in identifying the projects to be funded through the SEP.  In Colorado, Rocky Mountain Steel Mills proposed a SEP in partial settlement of concurrent federal and state enforcement actions.  U.S. EPA Region 8 and the State of Colorado were successful in mobilizing a community of low-income, predominately Hispanic new immigrants and third-generation families to participate in expending the funds contributed by the company. They agreed on nine public health projects.

Another case demonstrated how through collaboration with others a SEP can be integrated with other projects in support of a community objective. U.S. Steel, in agreeing to coordinate its investment in a SEP with other companies, agencies, municipalities, foundations, and individuals, rehabilitated approximately 2,000 feet of shoreline of the Detroit River as part of creating the nation’s only international wildlife refuge. 

These cases and others demonstrate the potential for SEPs to produce better outcomes and more coordination with other community investments through collaboration with other organizations and individuals. Typically, SEPs are proposed by violators and approved by enforcement officials without assessing the potential for far greater benefits through a collaborative approach than would result from the SEP project by itself.

The Underutilized Potential of SEPs

Better community outcomes through collaboration are envisioned in a new report on SEPs from the National Policy Consensus Center (NPCC).  Environmental Enforcement Solutions: How Collaborative SEPs Enhance Community Benefits  finds that combining model SEP practices that encourage community input and promote environmental justice with advanced collaborative problem solving techniques can produce larger and more satisfying outcomes from SEPs.

The NPCC report concludes that SEPs are underutilized generally and that newly developed collaborative governance processes can lead to greater community benefits by leveraging SEPs with other investments, actions, and commitments. It recommends that the states and U.S. EPA consider undertaking pilot collaborative SEPs to determine violator and community interest, and that they should develop “best practices” based on a collaborative governance process such as the Public Solutions System developed by NPCC. 

The Public Solutions System

Collaborative governance goes beyond traditional community involvement approaches to get political or other leaders in the state or the community to engage with all sectors – public, private, non-profit, citizens, and others – to develop effective, lasting solutions to public problems that go beyond what any sector could achieve on its own. This is the essence of the Public Solutions System advocated by NPCC.

In a number of successful projects in Oregon, NPCC has asked the governor to appoint a legislator, local official, or respected civic leader to bring diverse parties together to work on a common problem. NPCC, as an impartial organization, performs an assessment of the probability of success and assists the convener in bringing together participants representing all interests to reach agreement on the issues. The key difference from other collaborative processes is the deliberate engagement of leaders in getting people to the table.

Several projects are similar to SEPs. For example, in North Portland, which suffers from the highest levels of diesel emissions in the state, community groups, non-profit organizations, and private and public fleets reached an agreement to reduce diesel emissions through fuel and equipment upgrade projects.  A typical outcome in an Oregon Solutions project is that participants commit additional resources in amounts three to four times greater than the value of the original project.

The NPCC report suggests that a collaborative governance process could, in appropriate
SEPs, be utilized to produce similar results, building on the investment the violator is willing to make and coordinating it with other willing public and private investments in the community.  Where environmental justice issues exist in the affected community, a collaborative governance process is especially appropriate, as is recognized by EPA’s own model. See Nicholas Targ, Working Together to Achieve Results:  EPA’s Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Model

A second recent report on SEPs was written by the Public Law Research Institute at Hastings College of the Law in association with the American Bar Association (ABA). Supplemental Environmental Projects: A Fifty State Survey with Model Practices reviews and analyzes SEP laws, policies, and practices for every state.

The ABA Survey reports that 28 states and the District of Columbia have instituted formal, published SEP policies. Among its many findings that will help SEP practice is that States have more flexibility than EPA to adopt policies that favor SEPs.

Benefits of SEPs

Collaborative SEPs have benefits to all involved. The community benefits from the additional investments in priority projects and builds multi-stakeholder partnerships. The violator can build more effective relationships with the various communities. The state and federal enforcing agencies will find multiple objectives promoted by more robust SEPs, including enhancement of community sustainability.


EPA, States and violators should weigh the pros and cons of implementing collaborative SEPs where the circumstances are appropriate. These enhanced SEPs can provide benefits for the violator, the community, and the agency.

Langdon Marsh is a fellow at the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. He works on collaborative approaches to solving complex environmental and sustainability issues. Marsh was formerly commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Monica Kirk is an Attorney Advisor on detail to the EPA Office of Environmental Justice from ORC, Region 10

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