When in Doubt, Reach Out: The Role of Environmental Ombudsmen in Compliance Assistance

Friday, May 28, 2021
Kevin Si

Research and Publications Intern, ELI

Local and tribal governments are on the hook to meet a multitude of environmental requirements. Consider the effort needed to comply with NPDES permitting requirements for municipal wastewater and stormwater facilities, drinking water standards for public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and regulations governing municipal landfills under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, to name just a few. Hard-working officials and environmental managers must ensure that these requirements are met, often with their agencies strapped for funding and operating with a limited staff.

Leaves of an oak treeThat’s where EPA’s ombudsmen come in. But what are ombudsmen? For the most part, we can think of an ombudsman as an official liaison between organizations—like government agencies—and those they serve. Government ombudsmen have extensive expertise in technical and regulatory issues. Beyond that, they are intimately familiar with the people and resources in their own and partner organizations, they can objectively adjudicate and resolve complaints against their agencies, and they advocate for their constituents’ needs in the rulemaking process.

EPA ombudsmen are especially well equipped to assist local and tribal governments with complying with federal environmental requirements. What do EPA ombudsmen do? Assistance rendered by ombudsmen covers providing technical resources, offering assistance with permitting and enforcement flexibilities, pinpointing key federal assistance opportunities like grants and loans, and implementing integrated planning initiatives that help make compliance more cost-effective and sustainable.

Let’s meet the three EPA ombudsmen specially positioned to assist municipalities and tribes:

Municipal Ombudsman, Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations. Congress created this role specifically to address concerns around the Clean Water Act. However, supporting communities means taking a more holistic approach (to wit, a “one water perspective”). This means the Municipal Ombudsman will bring in resources under other water statutes like the Safe Drinking Water Act and look at solutions like green infrastructure for reducing stormwater pollution, flood resilience, and mitigating urban heat island impacts.

Asbestos and Small Business Ombudsman, Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization. This Ombudsman does double duty, combining two roles within the same office: the Small Business Ombudsman supports small businesses in understanding and complying with environmental regulations, and the Asbestos Ombudsman fields questions and concerns from the general public on asbestos in schools and public buildings.

Office of Pesticide Programs Ombudsmen (including Biopesticides and Pollution Prevention Division Ombudsman, Antimicrobials Division Ombudsman, and Pesticide Registration Improvement Act Ombudsman). These ombudsmen assist the general public with concerns related to manufacturers’ and distributors’ obligations when it comes to pesticides. Matters span product review and registration, biologically based pesticides and emerging technologies, antimicrobial pesticides and pesticides devices, and much more.

ELI’s Local Government Environmental Assistance Network (LGEAN) team spoke with Jamie Piziali, the Municipal Ombudsman, and Paula Hoag, the Asbestos and Small Business Ombudsman, in a recent episode of Today’s Local Environment—the Compliance Podcast. As the two “ombuds” explain, the relationship between EPA ombudsmen and those they serve is a two-way street. In addition to helping regulated communities meet their goals, ombudsmen also take any concerns raised by the local governments they work with to the right people, helping EPA be more responsive.

And if you’re unsure of whether an ombudsman is the right person to call? Don’t hesitate to contact EPA anyway. As Jamie says, “When in doubt—reach out!”

Those are the federal ombudsmen—what about the plethora of state environmental requirements local governments must follow? Examples include state-issued NPDES permits, Title V permits, hazardous waste permits, recycling laws, and green building codes. The good news is that many state environmental agencies also have ombudsmen—or their equivalent—standing by to help.

Here are just a few examples:

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) created the Rural Ombudsman position, housed in the Small Business and Local Government Assistance section, in recognition that typical compliance problems may pose even greater challenges for rural and smaller communities. The Rural Ombudsman’s role is primarily outreach—building relationships with rural governments to ensure they’re up-to-date on TCEQ programs. This ombudsman also assists with a range of matters encompassing air, waste, and especially water systems.

Some states offer similar compliance assistance services under different auspices. Michigan’s Environmental Assistance Center (EAC) connects local governments, businesses, and members of the public with the numerous programs housed in the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The EAC tracks regulations governing energy, waste, air, and water and hosts a number of webinars and live events for local governments, oftentimes partnering with state municipal and environmental organizations. Local officials can reach out directly for one-on-one assistance with a variety of environmental matters, including open burning, drug disposal, recycling, remediation, drinking water, stormwater, and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of External Affairs (OEA) aims to make compliance easier for local and tribal governments and communities. OEA connects its clients to applicable funding opportunities and targeted assistance programs, like the Capacity Development Section, which helps small water systems develop the necessary technical, managerial, and financial skillsets to improve sustainability.

In fact, many state agencies whose work intersects with environmental or sustainability issues often provide some level of local government assistance. California’s Office of Planning and Research serves as a clearinghouse for land use and community development, climate resilience, and economic development initiatives; a significant part of this role involves providing local governments with technical advice related to zoning and development laws, land use statutes, and the California Environmental Quality Act. Colorado’s Division of Local Government focuses on local governments, with the scope of assistance offered extending to sustainable community development and resilience.

It’s important to remember that, although these ombudsmen are housed in state regulatory agencies, they’re there to help—not to bring down the hammer of enforcement. For the most part, there’s no harm in reaching out to these offices for confidential technical assistance or even environmental self-audits. In Michigan, these activities are eligible for special protections against penalties.

Ombudsmen are truly an invaluable asset to local and tribal governments. To learn more about EPA’s ombudsmen and other useful environmental resources for local and tribal governments, follow Today’s Local Environment—the Compliance Podcast. By following the Local Government Environmental Assistance Network on Spotify and Anchor, you can stay up-to-date on all of LGEAN’s podcasts. Many more to come soon!