EPA polluter penalties fall to lowest level since 1994

EPA polluter penalties fall to lowest level since 1994
© Stefani Reynolds

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) levied the lowest civil penalties against polluters in nearly a quarter century last year, a new analysis of agency data found.

The $72 million in penalties for breaking the law in fiscal year 2018 was the lowest since 1994 and more than 85 percent below the two-decade average of $500 million, when adjusted for inflation. That's according to the analysis by Cynthia Giles, who led the EPA’s enforcement office under former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama praises marathon runners Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei for 'remarkable examples of humanity's ability' Each of us has a role in preventing veteran suicide Why calls for impeachment have become commonplace MORE.

Fiscal 2018, which ran from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018, was the first full fiscal year of the Trump administration, but nearly half of the penalties came from cases whose settlements were reached before President TrumpDonald John TrumpBusiness school deans call for lifting country-specific visa caps Bolton told ex-Trump aide to call White House lawyers about Ukraine pressure campaign: report Federal prosecutors in New York examining Giuliani business dealings with Ukraine: report MORE took office.


Giles’s analysis, based on publicly available data from the agency, was first reported by The Washington Post Thursday. She is a guest fellow at Harvard University’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.

“The public expects EPA to protect them from the worst polluters,” she told the Post. “The Trump EPA is not doing that. What worries me is how industry will respond to EPA’s abandonment of tough enforcement.”

Acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler defended the Trump administration’s strategy of avoiding penalties, saying last week that the agency instead prefers to make companies compliant with the law.

“We are working very hard on compliance assurance, and I think the agency has for a number of years,” he said at the Senate hearing on his nomination to be the EPA’s official leader.

“The more compliance assurance that we have, fewer enforcement actions we need to take.”

He also highlighted a recent $305 million penalty against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for cheating on diesel emissions tests. That penalty is part of the fiscal 2019 figures.

EPA spokesman John Konkus said Thursday that the agency is focused on enforcement no matter who is president.

“EPA’s career enforcement staff work continuously to initiate and conclude cases, regardless of administration,” he said. “We are proud to continue work that was initiated in prior administrations and to celebrate that good work when it is complete.”

Konkus also said that the EPA's annual enforcement figures for 2018 — which it plans to release after the government shutdown ends — will show an increase in criminal cases opened by the agency.