Washington, DC — Contrary to promises to beef up prosecution of polluters, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criminal enforcement program is withering under the Obama administration, according to records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The number of EPA criminal investigators has fallen below Bush administration levels as the management of the criminal enforcement program continues to lack focus.
The EPA Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigates the most serious environmental crimes. Its investigators are armed, badge-carrying special agents who probe corporate pollution offenses. From 205 special agents in 2003, there were only 173 agents in 2010, according to EPA statistics, but this number includes vacant slots, reducing the number of actual agents down to 160, according to a hand count of the latest agent directory.
The U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990 requires a minimum of 200 CID agents, a goal the Obama administration vowed but failed to reach. The FY 2010 EPA budget summary states: “The program will increase the number of agents to complete its three-year hiring strategy of raising its special agent workforce to 200 criminal investigators.” Yet, CID is shrinking rather than growing.
The drop-off in special agents is also reflected in a decline in new criminal cases referred for federal prosecution, with only 339 such referrals in 2009, a nearly 40% decline from 1999 case production, according to Justice Department figures. Criminal prosecutions filed from EPA cases and convictions obtained are both down more than 25% from 1999 to 2009.
“It is simple – without pollution cops on the beat, polluters go free,” said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former state enforcement attorney. “Besides staffing and resources, CID needs leadership that helps rather than hinders its special agents in making busts that stick.”
During the first Bush term, negative publicity about diversion of CID agents to Homeland Security-related assignments prompted a management review which recommended a series of reforms to restore the emphasis on environmental crimes. Unfortunately, the bulk of these reforms were not implemented.
CID agents who have contacted PEER complain about myopic management which lacks environmental enforcement experience and stresses internal procedures at the expense of investigations. One example is a March 3, 2010 memo from CID Director Ella Barnes admonishing supervisors of their “obligations to grant sick leave only when the need for sick leave is supported by administratively acceptable evidence.” She further advises “you should consult with our employment attorney whenever an issue with sick leave arises” in order to achieve “consistency of practices across the organization”.
“After reading this memo on sick leave, it is a wonder that the entire CID did not take a mental health day,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization is conducting a survey of all CID agents on workplace concerns. “These highly trained professionals need internal support to complete complex white collar investigations.”