Energy & Environment

Democrats drill EPA official over decrease in polluter settlements under Trump

House lawmakers at a Tuesday hearing sharply questioned a dramatic drop in environmental law enforcement under the Trump administration, hammering the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) head of regulations over the trend.

“What I see when I look at this report is an agency that is simply sitting on its hands, an agency that is giving polluters a free pass, and it’s putting our communities at risk,” said Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) at the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation hearing on EPA enforcement.

EPA’s head of compliance, Susan Bodine, defended the agency’s historically low enforcement numbers under Trump, focusing her comments on highlighting polluter compliance over legal charges brought against polluters.

“This narrative which appeared in the press since the beginning of the administration discredits the tremendous work of the compliance and assurance staff,” Bodine told lawmakers. “Enforcement is a critical tool but it’s not an end to itself.”

Since Trump took office, the EPA has witnessed dramatic policy changes, ranging from its use of science advisory boards to rollbacks of a number of Obama-era environmental regulations.

But the enforcement numbers released annually by the agency, which show how many cases were referred to the Department of Justice for prosecution against polluters, how much money was settled for with polluters and how often inspections were made at facilities, have shown some of the most clear reductions under the current administration.

EPA’s most recent annual report, released in early February, found that in 2018, the penalties handed down to corporate polluters by the Trump administration’s EPA were the lowest in over a decade. 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. Civil penalties in 2018 were the lowest amount on record since the EPA’s enforcement office was established in its current form in 1994.

Last year’s numbers were also significantly down from the previous year’s number under Trump. Injunctive relief in 2018 showed an 80 percent decrease from the EPA’s 2017 numbers ($20 billion). Civil penalties in 2018 dropped nearly 96 percent from the agency’s 2017 number, $1.6 billion.

The Hill reported in January that both Interior’s Office of the Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office are investigating 2017’s decreased enforcement.

Bodine, who has served as the assistant administrator to the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance since December 2017, said the administration has chosen to emphasize engaging industry to meet EPA standards rather than focusing on prosecution after the fact. She said the shift didn’t mean employees in the office weren’t focused on enforcing EPA laws.

“Compliance with those laws is what allows our country to make further environmental progress and maintain the great progress we have already achieved.” she said.

“Under the Trump administration, EPA’s enforcement program is focused on achieving compliance with environmental laws using all tools available to achieve compliance. Our goal is to eliminate inefficient duplication with state programs and to direct federal resources to help achieve the agency’s strategic plan goals.”

But Democratic lawmakers questioned Bodine on how EPA could prove it was doing its job to keep polluters in line if the numbers told another story.

“What is your explanation that EPA is at lowest level of civil case initiations since 1982?” asked Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), head of the House’s new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

“How can you claim EPA is going after polluters?”

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) likened the lowered enforcement to the Trump administration’s overall heel-dragging on maintaining current EPA laws.

“We talk a lot in this place about the Constitution and the separation of powers. Congress enacts laws and provides funding. The executive is supposed to enforce the law. I just wish the Trump administration would follow the Constitution,” Pallone said.

“Do your job. Enforce the law. That is what the executive branch is supposed to do.”

Bodine admitted that it was “very hard” to measure compliance progress.

“We don’t have a good measure of compliance,” she said, though she said the agency was doing a “better job” at targeting noncompliance.

She pushed back on looking at solely looking to civil penalty numbers to measure enforcement, saying they in themselves were not a good measure of compliance because of a number of landmark settlements that occur every so often that throw averages off.

“That’s a narrow slice of the work that we do,” Bodine said. “I would say that the number of cases is not reflective of that.”

In her testimony, Bodine did highlight a number of settlements EPA entered into under Trump, including December’s $500 million settlement with Fiat Chrysler over emissions cheating. The administration has hailed the settlement as proof that the federal government will go after bad actors who aim to get a leg up in the market by cheating on emissions standards.

However, critics have said the Chrysler case, which was referred to DOJ under the Obama administration, and others like it are outliers. Additionally, they say it remains concerning that the EPA continues to favor self-auditing policies, state-focused enforcement and corporate compliance over legal challenges to companies and the fossil fuel industries that break EPA regulations.

“Most regulated sources make good faith attempts to comply with the rules, and we would be lost without those efforts. But voluntary compliance will never be enough to prevent the serious violations that result from backsliding, carelessness or the temptation to cut corners to save money,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), in his testimony before the committee Tuesday.

“Without stronger enforcement programs at both the federal and state level, we leave law-abiding companies at the mercy of unscrupulous competitors and too many communities exposed to pollution that is illegal, noxious and in some cases downright dangerous.”

EIP released its own report timed with the hearing Tuesday that found that EPA completed less than 60 percent of its average annual facility inspections since 2001.

A handful of Republican lawmakers on the committee, however, did try to point out that the EPA enforcement numbers under Trump were only a trend of two years, telling members to not jump to conclusions.

“Considering the ebb and flows of enforcement fines and penalties within administration … I hope we don’t get ahead of ourselves that one year’s slightly lower enforcement numbers means the EPA isn’t doing its job,” said Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), subcommittee ranking member.

Tags Brett Guthrie Diana DeGette Enforcement EPA Frank Pallone Jr. Kathy Castor Pollution

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