The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an annual report Feb. 8 on its enforcement activities in fiscal 2018. After wading through a bushel full of cherry-picked case studies and a basket of bureaucratic happy talk, the report paints a dismal picture of decline in a crucially important EPA program.
EPA's data indicate that it initiated and concluded approximately 1,800 civil judicial enforcement cases in 2018 — fewer than half the number it handled in fiscal 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration. The agency required violators to invest $3.95 billion to control their excessive pollution last year, a far cry from the $21.3 billion in pollution control expenditures that resulted from EPA enforcement in 2011. Similarly, the total amount of administrative and civil penalties that EPA extracted from environmental violators was at its lowest level in the past decade, thus reducing the disincentive for companies to break the law. The same was true with regard to the number of criminal cases opened by the agency in 2018 and the number of defendants charged with federal pollution crimes — all were down to the lowest levels in ten years.
Contributing to those dismal numbers was a dramatic decline in EPA's facility inspections and plant evaluations. Those activities fell to 10,600 in 2018 — less than 50 percent of the number of plant visits conducted by the agency in 2010.
Inspections are particularly important for their deterrent effect. In addition to uncovering unreported violations, EPA plant visits are supposed to send a message to would-be violators that an environmental "cop is on the beat." The more inspections decline, the more likely it is that some companies will attempt to cut their operating costs by cutting corners on pollution controls.
As troubling as these numbers are, they do not fully portray the extent to which EPA's enforcement efforts have been suppressed in the first two years of the Trump administration.
Top photo by the Natural Resources Defense Council, used under a Creative Commons license.