By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's plan to focus on cracking down on just the largest polluters will deliver "lasting returns" to the American public, its top enforcement official said on Thursday.
Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for the EPA's office of enforcement, wrote in a blog post that the agency remained committed to punishing polluters that violate U.S. rules but needed to prioritize because of budgetary and staffing constraints.
"Focusing on large, high impact cases requires significant investment and long-term commitment. But this is the right way to invest our resources to achieve tangible and lasting returns to the public," Giles wrote.
In a strategic plan for 2014 to 2018 that it released on Thursday, the EPA said it would enforce fewer cases overall compared with recent years.
"This approach best protects public health not only by addressing the most serious pollution problems, but also by directing EPA's resources to important cases that may not be addressed by states," the plan said.
Certain environmental and human health risks or the patterns of noncompliance are so broad in scope and scale that EPA is better suited to take action than individual states, the agency added.
Giles said recent announcements about large settlements with polluters point to the early success of the strategy.
For example, Texas oil company Anadarko Petroleum Corp this month agreed to pay $5.15 billion for a massive environmental cleanup involving nuclear fuel, rocket fuel waste and other toxins around the country.
The Justice Department said it was its largest environmental enforcement settlement.
Critics warn that smaller but still significant pollution cases are unlikely to get enforced under the agency's new approach, which will rely increasingly on technology and less on manpower as the EPA sends fewer inspectors into the field.
Earlier this year, Reuters reported that budget shortages might impede enforcement of potential water contamination cases linked to natural gas drilling.
Giles said the EPA's new program, called Next Generation Compliance, will use new information and monitoring technologies to help the agency and states to get better compliance results.
"It is the right direction for the Agency regardless of resources because it will increase effectiveness, and it becomes more urgent in a time of challenging budgets, when we need to reduce pollution, improve compliance, and target our enforcement cases where they will make the most difference," she wrote.
In addition to streamlining enforcement, the EPA's new strategy also addresses climate change and air quality; protecting America's waters; cleaning up communities; advancing sustainable development and ensuring chemical safety.
The EPA's strategic plan can be seen at: http://www2.epa.gov/planandbudget/fy-2014-2018-strategic-plan
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Ros Krasny)