Environmental Implementation, Enforcement, and Justice Under Second-Order Devolution
*Names in bold indicate Presenter
In recent years political scientists have begun to study environmental justice from a policy implementation perspective, investigating whether there are systematic racial, ethnic, and/or socioeconomic disparities in the compliance with and enforcement of environmental laws. Meanwhile, an extensive literature on environmental federalism examines the ways that shared state-federal responsibility for environmental programs affects their development and performance. Largely left aside in the research literature on environmental federalism is the role of local government in federal environmental regulation. States formally bear administrative responsibility for many U.S. environmental laws, but much of the implementation of these laws falls to local agencies. That is, states may set and enforce environmental regulations, but local governments operate the vast majority water systems regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), sewage treatment works regulated under the Clean Water Act (CWA), and landfills governed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In real terms, local governments are responsible for the implementation of American environmental programs, and a small literature on second-order devolution suggests that local implementation conditions federal policy in ways that affect outcomes.
In this study we examine environmental justice when local governments are chiefly responsible for implementation and state governments are responsible for enforcement. Does race, ethnicity, and/or socioeconomic status of the population that a local government serves affect its implementation of environmental regulations? Do states’ enforcement actions vary depending on the demographics of the affected populations?
Our empirical subject is compliance and enforcement of the SDWA in municipal utilities—a perennially important issue in a country that relies on local governments to provide drinking water to over 85% of its population. Analysis reveals that a community’s racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition affects its local government’s compliance with drinking water regulations. Race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status also condition SDWA enforcement at the state level, but in different ways. Results suggest that different logics and constraints condition justice with respect to implementation and enforcement at the different levels of government. Our findings carry important and troubling implications for environmental justice in a regulatory system that relies heavily upon second-order devolution.