EPA’s Low Law Enforcement Puts Communities at Risk

A new report issued yesterday by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) in conjunction with a Congressional hearing on EPA’s lack of enforcement under President Trump, concludes that communities across the country are being put at risk of exposure to dangerous contaminants. The report provides 10 examples of major violations and pollution releases that threaten public health and are still awaiting enforcement by EPA.  Beyond EPA’s own numbers, which show the enforcement decline, the EIP Report digs deeper into the data to reveal that:

  • EPA’s enforcement workforce has declined due to drastic budget cuts, with 1,842 full-time equivalent staff in 2018, which is down 16 percent from 2006. The number is expected to drop further in 2019.
  • The amount of air pollution that violators were required to eliminate through EPA civil enforcement actions in the two years since President Trump’s inauguration fell 64 percent compared to the first two years of the Obama Administration.
  • More broadly, the amount of all kinds of pollution reduced or treated through enforcement in 2018 was 268 million pounds. That was slightly more than the year before, but less than half of the average annually between 2012 and 2016.

Two examples of the violations the EIP report describes that still have not been the subject of enforcement action are:

  • Louisiana: Denka Performance Elastomer plant in LaPlace, Louisiana. This chemical plant failed to meet standards designed to control hazardous pollutants, including chloroprene, a compound EPA has determined is likely to increase the risk of cancer at very low doses.
  • Texas: Magellan Midstream Partners Galena Park terminal near Houston. During Hurricane Harvey, this petroleum storage and transfer facility released more than 460,000 gallons of gasoline into the surrounding waters and emitted smog-forming volatile organic compounds into the air.

The Hill reported that the EPA enforcement chief (a former lobbyist for polluters) pushed back against the tough questions from Democrats saying that “the administration has chosen to emphasize engaging industry to meet EPA standards rather than focusing on prosecution after the fact.”  But the Democrats kept up the pressure. For example, Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida asked, “What is your explanation that EPA is at the lowest level of civil case initiations since 1986?  How can you claim EPA is going after polluters?”

Why This Matters:  As Eric Schaeffer, former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA and now Executive Director of the EIP put it, “[t]hose cutbacks are leaving communities – including those with high poverty levels and African-American or Latino neighborhoods – exposed to public health risks, while letting polluters off the hook for serious violations of the law.”  It is good that the House’s oversight can expose this type of favoritism for the industry.  Compliance assistance is good — but it is no substitute for actual enforcement. And no amount of antiseptic sunshine created by Congressional oversight will make up for the harms caused to the exposed communities and their residents.

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