Trump’s Law and Order Presidency Doesn’t Reach Environmental Criminals

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer, and Monica Medina

Environmental enforcement actions — criminal and civil cases against polluters — have dropped dramatically during the Trump administration, according to a new study out of the University of Michigan Law School. The study, by Professor David Uhlmann who led the Environmental Crimes Section at the Justice Department from 2000-07, found that in the first two years of the Trump administration,  there was a 70 percent decrease in criminal prosecutions under the Clean Water Act and more than 50 percent under the Clean Air Act, the lowest number of environmental prosecutions since 2005.    Civil prosecutions have also dropped, The New York Times reported, and so has the median size of fines.  The number of felonies — very serious criminal cases — has dropped steeply. In short, Uhlmann told the Times, “pollution prosecutions under President Trump have fallen dramatically from his predecessors, both in terms of quantity and quality.”

Why this Matters:  So much for the “law and order” President.  President Trump and the Attorney General may want to prosecute protesters, but big corporations that violate pollution laws and risk the public’s health — not so much.  Without the credible threat of law enforcement, businesses can violate the laws and never worry about the consequences to people or the environment.

How Low Can They Go?

Professor Uhlmann studied the cases brought between 2005 and 2018, and found that the two-year period starting in 2017 had “the worst pollution prosecution numbers in the 14 years” they examined.  The trend in prosecutions had been declining in the second term of the Obama administration, but once the Trump Administration, according to Uhlmann, “the bottom dropped out.”  For example, in 2018, there were only nine defendants prosecuted for Clean Water Act violations across the country.  The total number of prosecutions under all environmental statutes fell from 191 in 2011 to 75 in 2018.

Quality versus Quantity?

Both the E.P.A. and the Justice Department disputed this report. Jeffrey Bossert Clark, who heads the environment and natural resources division of the Justice Department, told the New York Times through a spokeswoman that the article “confuses quantity for quality.” He suggested that though the number of water pollution cases has declined, the number of pesticide cases has shot up by “several hundred percent,” because of prosecutions of illegal smuggling and false COVID-19 treatments. A spokeswoman for the E.P.A. also disputed the report’s claims, telling the New York Times that the agency “has reinvigorated its criminal enforcement program” and “reversed the downward trend,” and that the number of cases in 2019 and 2020 (years that were not covered in the report) has increased dramatically.  However, Professor Uhlmann responded that only 10 defendants were prosecuted for pesticide violations in 2017 and 2018, not nearly enough to reverse the downward trend in Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act cases.

H/T To Prof. Uhlmann’s research assistants who worked hard to help with the Report, and to Prof. Uhlmann for making sure we knew!

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