Criminal Enforcement Collapse at EPA
Lowest Number of New Anti-Pollution Cases in 30 Years
Washington, DC — Even before the government shutdown, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement program was missing in action, according to new figures posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In 2018, EPA generated the fewest new criminal case referrals for prosecution than any year since 1988.
- In Fiscal Year 2018 (ending in October), EPA made only 166 referrals for prosecution to the Department of Justice. That represents a nearly 60% reduction from 2011 and a 72% decline from the level of enforcement activity twenty years ago in 1998;
- In the first two months of FY 2019, the pace has slowed even further, with EPA making only 24 referrals. When the effects of the government shutdown are figured in, the current year will likely set another all-time enforcement low mark; and
- EPA cases resulted in only 62 convictions in FY 2018, fewer than any year dating back to 1992.
“These figures indicate that the Trump plan to cripple EPA is working,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist, wetland specialist, and attorney formerly with EPA, pointing out that a dearth of new cases means fewer prosecutions, convictions, and prison sentences in the years ahead. “Not enforcing our anti-pollution laws steadily transforms them into dead letters.”
These numbers also reflect a decrease in the number of criminal investigators assigned to pollution cases. In April 2018, there were only 140 special agents in EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division. Reportedly, that number has dropped to only 130 today. This is more than a third less than the number of CID agents in 2003, well below the minimum of 200 agents required by the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990.
Policies launched by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and continued by acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler may also be driving enforcement declines. They replaced EPA’s Enforcement Initiative with a Compliance Initiative that lets offenders avoid prosecution by merely agreeing to suspend their violations.
At the same time, decisions on prosecution referrals are now centralized in headquarters, enabling Wheeler and political deputies to nix criminal referrals. In addition, states have been given veto power, thus injecting local politics into prosecution decisions.
“The absence of criminal prosecution means corporate polluters can be comfortable that they will suffer no personal consequences, no matter how egregious the offense,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Wheeler had been a lawyer handling corporate pollution defense before his 2017 EPA appointment. “Nothing could be more core to EPA’s mission than enforcing our nation’s pollution laws.”
Nor are the sharp declines confined to criminal cases. PEER points to similar drop-offs in EPA civil and
administrative enforcement since 2017.
Tomorrow, January 16th, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee takes up Wheeler’s nomination to shed his ‘acting” title and succeed Pruitt as EPA Administrator.