Energy & Environment

EPA data reveals dramatic decrease in enforcement of polluter fees

Under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has fined far fewer polluters for breaking emissions rules than the Obama administration. 

Numbers released Thursday by the EPA in its annual enforcement report revealed that polluters were fined a total of $1.6 billion in penalties in fiscal year 2017 — about a fifth of the $5.7 billion EPA penalties collected the year prior, under President Obama.

The federal fiscal year goes from Oct. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2017.

The drop in the EPA’s enforcement of regulations is even more stark when looking specifically at the agency’s actions on injunction relief — the monetary commitments polluters pledge to spend in order to remediate their pollution and keep it from reoccurring.  {mosads}

The EPA report shows that injunctive relief in 2017 stood at $20 billion, compared to 2016’s $13.7 billion, but $15.9 billion of the recent total come from the landmark Volkswagen settlement. When the settlement is taken out of the calculation, injunctive relief payments in fiscal year 2017 totaled just $4 billion — less than a third of 2016’s numbers and less than half of 2015’s.

In its press release about the report, the EPA highlighted the year as one for “deterring noncompliance.”

“A strong enforcement program is essential to achieving positive health and environmental outcomes,” said Susan Bodine head of the agency’s compliance office in the EPA statement.

“In fiscal year 2017, we focused on expediting site cleanup, deterring noncompliance, and returning facilities to compliance with the law, while respecting the cooperative federalism structure of our nation’s environmental laws.”

Environmental enforcement experts pushed back on the EPA’s statement, however, saying the report’s numbers show the opposite.

Steven Chester, who served from 2011 to 2014 as deputy assistant administrator in EPA’s compliance office, said that a drop in litigation and enforcement at the agency could mean lasting consequences for the environment.

“My big concern is that if there isn’t a viable threat of litigation and enforcement, if there aren’t an appropriate number of lawsuits or complaints brought, that you lose that deterrent effect — and if you rely too heavily on compliance assistance you are going to end up with more non-compliance,” he said.

Part of the EPA’s job is to recommend polluters to the Justice Department (DOJ) for prosecution. The defendants are typically companies or sometimes municipalities, and those cases are settled for agreed upon penalty amounts and injunctive relief actions.

Chester said the drop in EPA’s recommendations for prosecution was the most noticeable change in the 2017 enforcement report. The number of cases recommended in 2017 was 110, compared to 152 the year before.

“Those numbers tell you what’s in the pipeline and what’s going to be in the pipeline in future years,” Chester said. “Those might not look like big numbers but these are huge numbers because these are cases referred to DOJ, these are cases that DOJ is going to fine.”

An EPA employee currently working in the office of compliance told The Hill, under the condition of anonymity, that in the days leading up to the release of the report the administration worried about how to spin the dipping enforcement numbers as a positive.

The fear partially stemmed from a critical New York Times article from December that showed that the agency was on track for a stark drop in enforcement.

“There was internal concern that the numbers were not just a dip but a big drop,” said the EPA source. “That may be one reason why [the report’s out] a little bit later. It may explain some difference in presentation.”

In previous years the EPA has released its report at the end of the year, generally in December.

Days before the EPA released its annual enforcement report, Bodine told her staff in an email not to be concerned with the public’s perception of the enforcement record.

“Some outside entities that are unfamiliar with the true nature of our work here in OECA and have tried to measure the worth of what you do simply through the dollar amount of federal penalties and the number of federal case initiations,” she wrote in an office-wide email reviewed by The Hill.

“However it is also important for EPA to help and, if necessary, persuade states to take actions to address violations and informal actions can bring about a return to compliance more quickly.”

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