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Improving Environmental Regulatory Enforcement with Tech in the U.S.

Environmental enforcement agencies are charged with monitoring more than 40 million U.S. facilities—from large, privately owned industrial campuses to municipal wastewater treatment plants and even local farms. While environmental enforcement efforts are critical to human health and environmental safety, the sheer number of facilities and scope of the oversight required makes enforcement inherently challenging. At the same time, many enforcement organisations often lack the technology assets required to effectively manage their fundamental activities.

In many cases, field inspectors still use pen and paper to collect information, experts rely upon human-generated spreadsheets to track information and manually analyse data and mobile inspection capabilities are often limited to simple electronic data collection, meaning inspectors must still create reports manually. Lack of easy, digital access to findings from past inspections means regulatory agents may spend hours conducting painstaking analysis—time that they could be used to inspect more facilities.

With the increased focus on climate change and environmental justice, it’s even more critical that environmental regulators have the technology they require to do their jobs effectively. The following five technology priorities can serve as force multipliers for the environmental enforcement community.

Mobile inspections

Mobile inspection apps can eliminate manual, paper-intensive, desk-dependent data entry and access. Agencies employing advanced mobile solutions have seen marked productivity improvements of 50% or more for core inspection functions.

Smartphones and tablets allow inspectors to capture inspection results directly into the record with associated photo and video evidence as well as geo-referenced data. When data is compiled digitally at the source, inspectors can readily generate corrective action reports to be reviewed with the facility after the inspection.

Remote inspections

COVID moved many government inspection processes from in-person to remote. Increasingly, agencies are introducing workflows that allow inspectors to conduct collaborative virtual inspections via online meeting tools. Using video calls with facility managers, inspectors can collect data into the record, capture images in real-time and gain further insights into facility performance, just as they would in person.

Unmanned aerial systems

UAS technology allows environmental enforcement agencies to collect data from remote locations. The use of UAS, such as drones and small unmanned aircraft, enable a swifter and safer response to emergencies. In some cases, drones can be more cost-effective than in-person inspections or other aerial methods. In situations where an agency seeks to monitor a site over time, such as targeted environmental justice sites, the return on drone investment can be significant, empowering regulators and researchers with data that previously would have been cost-prohibitive to collect with the same degree of frequency.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Today, inspections are routinely scheduled as a result of evidence of a possible violation, in response to a citizen or employee complaint, or due to other factors such as time elapsed since the last inspection. A risk-based, data-driven model, powered by AI could replace, or augment, this reactive approach.

Tapping into the wealth of information available in past inspection reports, photos and videos, satellite images and sensor data, enforcement agencies could apply AI and ML to identify trends and prioritise inspection activities according to risk.

By combining data from various sources—such as air sensor data and satellite imagery—inspectors can proactively identify potential non-compliance that requires human follow-up. AI-based complexity scoring can assist agencies in assigning the most appropriate personnel to a given inspection or investigation.

Tailored, integrated solutions

While new technology investments can deliver significant gains in productivity, mobile apps, remote inspection capabilities, UAS and AI/ML investments are just the beginning. Environmental enforcement agencies must continue to evolve their IT solutions to more tightly integrate their end-to-end enforcement business processes. The biggest barrier to scaling the use of data across the enforcement process is a lack of integration between permitting, enforcement and compliance systems. To harness the power of data, systems must be more tightly integrated, with a seamless workflow between connected systems.

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