EPA polluter enforcement hit historic lows in 2018

Penalties handed down to corporate polluters in 2018 by the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were the lowest in over a decade, the agency announced in its annual report Friday.

By two key measures, the agency assessed lower penalties for breaking pollution laws on an inflation-adjusted basis than any year in at least 15 years, according to the official figures.

The dipped fines include a significant drop in injunctive relief — the monetary commitments polluters pledge to spend in order to remediate their pollution and keep it from recurring — and the civil penalties the EPA charged to companies.

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The EPA obtained a total of $3.95 billion in injunctive relief in fiscal 2018, which stretched from Oct. 1, 2017, to Sept. 30, 2018. That number was the lowest in 15 years.

The last time the numbers were that low was in 2003 during the Bush administration, at $3.94 billion.

Looking at civil penalties, the total amount fined to polluters who broke EPA regulations was $69.47 million in the same period, the lowest amount on record since the EPA’s enforcement office was established in its current form in 1994.

The 2018 figures were both a drop from the alarming amounts the EPA collected in 2017. Injunctive relief in 2018 was an 80 percent decrease from the EPA’s 2017 numbers of $20 billion. Civil penalties in 2018 dropped nearly 96 percent from the agency’s 2017 numbers of $1.6 billion.

The drop in penalty numbers assessed under Trump in 2017 are already under investigation by both Interior’s Office of the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office.

EPA officials Friday nonetheless appeared proud of their enforcement results.

“A strong enforcement and compliance assurance program is essential to achieving positive public health and environmental outcomes,” Susan Bodine, head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a statement on Friday’s report.

“In fiscal year 2018, we continued our focus 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.”

The figures align with an analysis released in January by Cynthia Giles, who led the EPA enforcement office under President Obama.

The results follow the establishment of a strong pro-industry bent at the EPA under President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE, in which officials have taken numerous steps to roll back regulations and policies in ways that industries like oil and chemical makers have requested.

Last year’s enforcement results, the first measured under President Trump, showed significant declines in punishments for polluters from those under the Obama administration. The drop indicated that the EPA is focusing less on enforcement and more on trying to get companies to comply with pollution laws.

EPA officials themselves have also worked to change the focus on polluter enforcement toward polluter compliance — emphasizing actions the agency has taken to work with polluters to educate them on how to better comply with EPA laws before they break them. That includes the creation of new audit policies to entice polluters to self-enforce.

In the EPA’s annual review released in January, the agency also sought to highlight the pounds of pollutants managed in the previous year as “almost twice as much as FY 2017.”

In the Friday report, the EPA said its enforcement program focused “in areas that will have a major environmental or human health impact, support the integrity of our environmental regulatory programs, create a deterrent effect, or promote cleanups.”

The agency highlighted accomplishments such as commitments to treat, minimize or dispose of 540 million pounds of waste and 268 million pounds of pollution, and commitments to clean up 268 million pounds of soil and water.