An analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published yesterday (December 10) shows more leniency for violators of federal pollution laws under the current adminstration than during former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush’s time in office.
The newspaper compiled a database of civil cases filed with the EPA during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. It found that in the first nine months of the EPA’s time under Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency launched one-third fewer cases than during the same time period under Obama’s first EPA director and one-quarter fewer than under Bush’s.
The agency has also collected approximately $1.2 billion from companies under a program called injunctive relief, which is considered one of the EPA’s most powerful enforcement weapons. This dollar amount is about 12 percent of what was collected under Obama’s EPA in the same time period, and 48 percent of the amount collected under Bush. Per The Times:
In addition, the agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under Mr. Trump. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought over the same time period.
Following The Times report, the EPA released a statement saying it is no less committed to enforcement than previous administrations: “There is no reduction in EPA’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws.”
The Times also reviewed confidential internal EPA documents that expose the agency’s practices on the local level, writing:
The documents, which were reviewed by The Times, indicate that EPA enforcement officers across the country no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests, known as requests for information, without receiving permission from Washington. The tests are essential to building a case against polluters, the equivalent of the radar gun for state highway troopers.
Last Thursday (December 7), Susan Bodine was confirmed as assistant administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the EPA, which is the most senior position for enforcement in the agency. Her appointment comes after more than 700 employees left the EPA following the election. Of staff members who have remained at the agency, the Times writes that many feel “frozen in place, and demoralized, particularly in the regional offices, which have investigators who are especially knowledgeable of local pollution threats.”
The newspaper reported on more than a dozen companies or plants that received notices of violation toward the end of the Obama administration, but had not faced EPA penalties as of late November 2018. One of these, Indiana Harbor Coke, is in the city of East Chicago, Indiana. The plant received at least three warning notices since 2015 for pollution violations, “including hundreds of illegal emissions of lead, which can cause serious health problems, especially for children,” reports The Times.
East Chicago is approximately 52 percent Latinx and 38 percent Black. As Colorlines has previously reported, polluting plants—including coal and oil refineries—are often built near communities of color. Residents frequently face health problems caused by that proximity, including increased rates of asthma and cancer.
“Certain people who are polluting are doing it with impunity right now and I think it is horrible,” Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer in the Chicago office who has worked at the agency for 26 years, told The Times.