EPA numbers hint at eased enforcement under Trump

EPA numbers hint at eased enforcement under Trump
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The reported decline in enforcement actions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is likely a harbinger of what’s to come from the Trump administration, experts say. 

The EPA on Thursday reported that it had recommended that 115 cases of illegal pollution be prosecuted in the last fiscal year, down from 152 the year before and a peak of nearly 400 cases in 2009.

The findings seemed to confirm speculation that the EPA under President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE has shifted its focus away from regulating pollution and prosecuting polluters, and experts and former EPA officials predict the enforcement numbers will continue to drop.

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“The enforcement results today are heavily influenced by big cases brought by the Obama administration," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) and head of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement from 1997 to 2002. "Since President Trump took office, the long arm of the law has gotten shorter, at least when it comes to cracking down on illegal pollution." 

The tally of enforcement actions for fiscal 2017 included the final four months of the Obama administration. If the tally had only included actions taken under current EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE, many suspect that the total would have been significantly lower.

Back in August, an EIP report looked at the first six months of Trump’s presidency and found that 26 civil lawsuits were filed against polluters. During the comparable time period under former Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, 34 and 31 cases were filed, respectively. The EIP report also found a 60 percent drop in civil penalties under Trump.

A New York Times analysis that looked at cases started specifically since Pruitt became administrator found that enforcement rates were even lower than the annual report. Civil enforcement cases were one-third of the amount filed in the same time period under the Obama administration and about a quarter of those filed at the beginning of Bush’s presidency.

Steven Chester, who served from 2011 to 2014 as deputy assistant administrator in EPA’s enforcement office, said the fiscal 2017 caseload may only reflect the Trump administration’s desire to finish those cases started by Obama.

“They say they concluded about 100 cases in 2017. That doesn’t tell you anything about the future — just that they put an emphasis on resolving things,” he said.

Chester also added that it’s likely EPA’s numbers dropped, and will drop further, as a result of the budget decrees, early retirements and job freezes happening at the agency. A joint New York Times and ProPublica project from December found that hundreds of EPA employees left the agency in 2017.

“Ultimately your ability to do inspections and investigations — to open files — depends on how many employees you have and staff working. I think if you look hard, you’d see some impact there,” Chester said.

The EPA touted its ability to come to agreements with polluters outside of a courtroom when it released the enforcement numbers for fiscal 2017.

In a letter sent to EPA compliance staff just weeks before the release of the enforcement data, the agency’s head of compliance Susan Bodine emphasized EPA’s need to “use its entire toolbox” to work with states, not just through filing charges.

“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,” she wrote. 

An EPA employee, who works in the office of compliance and asked not to be named, said the true extent of the agency’s enforcement practices under Pruitt wouldn’t be apparent for a few years.

"It’s still pretty early. I think a better measure of this administration’s commitment will come after a couple years when you’re looking at what they’re putting into the pipeline, not just what they are completing in the pipeline,” the source said. 

“The new cases, the new complaints, number type, etc. may in some ways be a better reflection of their priorities.”