Polluters paid far less in civil penalties under Trump’s EPA. Here are the numbers.

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, January 25, 2019

During his confirmation hearing, the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting administrator Andrew Wheeler touted the “environmental benefits” from the agency’s law enforcement actions against polluters last year.

But a new analysis of EPA data by an old Barack Obama administration official tells a different story. It shows that civil penalties for polluters dropped dramatically during the first two years of President Trump’s administration.

During the last fiscal year, civil penalties fell to roughly $72 million, according to an analysis from Cynthia Giles, who headed EPA’s enforcement office under Obama and is now a guest fellow at the Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program.

It’s the lowest level in inflation-adjusted dollars since the agency’s enforcement office was formed in 1994, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. By contrast, EPA penalties for polluters for the past two decades averaged more than $500 million a year — making it an 85 percent drop under Trump.

And the amount of money companies had to pay to come into compliance with federal environmental laws fell as well, down to nearly $5.6 billion in the last fiscal year. When adjusted for inflation, that represents the lowest amount of injunctive relief since 2003.

Giles told Eilperin and Dennis the drop in fines during the first full fiscal year of the Trump administration was particularly striking because 97 percent of the penalties levied in fiscal year 2017 stemmed from consent decrees signed and filed under Obama.

“It tells me that they are backing away from doing biggest, highest impact cases,” Giles said, “and those are the most important for protecting public health, and they’re the cases the states can’t or won’t do.”

Her findings are in line with other analyses from environmental and governance groups indicating a decline in enforcement at the EPA under Trump.

During his hearing in the Senate earlier this month, Wheeler pushed back against those reports, saying they contained “a lot of misleading information.”

Wheeler pointed out that EPA had opened more criminal enforcement cases during 2018 than the year before. And he said enforcement actions last year resulted in removing “809 million pounds of pollution and waste” from the environment.

Wheeler emphasized the different approach he said his EPA is taking by working with companies it oversees to ensure they comply with federal rules, rather than levying charges or imposing fines. “The more compliance assurance that we have,” he said, “the fewer enforcement actions we need to take.”

Yet EPA watchers within the federal government are still concerned. The Government Accountability Office is investigating how the agency’s law enforcement duties are changing and whether it has adequate staff to execute them. According to GAO spokesman Charles Young, the inquiry began in October and will likely be completed this fall.

And Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the agency’s enforcement numbers “abysmal.”

“The troubling lack of enforcement not only threatens the water we drink and the air we breathe, but also sends a dangerous message to polluters that EPA will continue to turn a blind eye,” he said.

Current and former EPA officials said that a loss of staff within the enforcement office during the past two years has affected the agency’s ability to pursue polluters — and that was before the partial federal shutdown sidelined the vast majority of the agency’s inspectors and compliance experts.

And while the Criminal Investigation Division opened a slightly higher number of cases last fiscal year, according to one federal official who was not authorized to speak publicly, the number of defendants charged and total amount of criminal fines declined.

Despite the criticism from Democrats and environmental groups over the reduction in cases and fines against polluters, the EPA also has won praise from some corners for its emphasis on compliance rather than punishment.

“I’ve seen some stories in the press that EPA enforcement cases have fallen,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said at Wheeler’s confirmation hearing. “In my opinion, how many enforcement cases are filed isn’t the best metric to measure the EPA’s successes. Our goal should be to actually make sure people are following the law in the first place.”

Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.