EPA Enforcement Hits New Lows

The Trump Administration is not just rolling back environmental rules, it is also cutting down on inspections and enforcement according to a summary issued by the agency on Friday.  We had previously reported the drop in criminal cases brought by EPA against the worst polluters, but this new data shows the decrease in enforcement also carries over to civil cases and even to inspections, which provide the basis for enforcement actions.  Here is the drop by the numbers:

  • In 2018, EPA conducted 10,600  inspections/evaluations of facilities, as compared to nearly 21,300 in 2010.
  • In 2018, EPA initiated and concluded more than 1,800 civil judicial and administrative cases, as compared to more than 3600 in 2009.
  • In 2018, EPA enforcement actions required companies to invest nearly $4 billion in actions and equipment to control pollution (injunctive relief), as compared to nearly $20.5 billion in 2017.  The next lowest year was 2009 with just under $6 billion.
  • In 2018, EPA obtained over $69 million in federal administrative and civil judicial penalties which were the lowest by far since 2008, as compared to $6.1 billion in 2016 and $1.67 billion in 2017.

These annual figures can be skewed by certain big settlements, such as the 2017’s $1.45 billion Clean Air Act penalty in the Volkswagen case, and 2016’s $5.7 billion in penalties in the BP Deep Water Horizon case.  According to The Washington Post, deep cuts imposed by the Republican-controlled Congress on EPA’s enforcement budget led to modest declines in these activities since 2012. But The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis say that Trump Administration has cut enforcement dramatically because “EPA’s leadership has said it can clean up the environment more effectively by cooperating with industry to improve the private sector’s performance.”

Why This Matters:  You can never enforce against every violator.  But enforcement cases are a deterrent to others who might break the rules if they know they won’t be caught.  EPA’s very public retreat on enforcement is a big signal to those who are looking to cut corners and save compliance costs (or worse) that the risk is low for cheating on environmental rules.  That causes a “race to the bottom” in which those who continue to comply with environmental rules are increasingly disadvantaged in the marketplace trying to compete with those who are not complying, lowering their production costs, and getting away with it.  And the people who ultimately pay are those who have to live with the impacts of the non-compliance.  It’s just another way that “front line” communities bear the brunt of pollution that is enriching the powerful interests.

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