Enforcement of Environmental Laws a Victim of Obama’s Budget Proposal

by Anne Havemann

EPA’s budget is in free-fall.  Members of Congress brag that they have slashed it 20 percent since 2010.  President Obama’s proposed budget for 2015, released on Tuesday, continues the downward trend.  The budget proposal would provide $7.9 billion for EPA, about $300 million, or 3.7 percent, less than the $8.2 billion enacted in fiscal year 2014.

To cope with these cuts, the agency plans to fundamentally change the way it enforces environmental laws.  A draft five-year plan released in November signals that the agency is retreating from traditional enforcement measures, such as inspections, in favor of self-monitoring by regulated industries.  Specifically, the agency aims to conduct 30 percent fewer inspections and file 40 percent fewer civil cases over the next five years as compared to the last five.

Even before releasing the draft plan, the agency had already begun cutting down on enforcement.  In February, the agency reported a decrease in the number of in-person inspections and investigations in 2013 compared to the previous year.  According to the EPA’s own report, enforcement actions in 2013 resulted in the reduction of 1.3 billion pounds of pollution, down from a high of more than 2 billion pounds in 2012.  EPA conducted 2,000 fewer inspections and evaluations and initiated about 2,400 civil cases last year, continuing a downward trend since fiscal 2009 when the agency opened about 3,700.

Sequestration is to blame for some of the reductions seen in 2013.  The sequester forced EPA to reduce hiring and furloughing staff, which resulted in 1,000 fewer annual inspections (out of about 20,000) conducted by EPA’s compliance enforcement staff, according to a GAO report released late last week.

EPA has no choice but to respond to these crippling budget cuts.  It should be strategic about it, however, and traditional enforcement is the most cost-effective weapon to prevent backsliding on the progress the nation has made in reducing pollution.  The coal ash spill in North Carolina and the chemical leak in West Virginia provide just two examples of what can happen when industry is given free rein to police itself.  Cutting enforcement invites noncompliance on industry’s part and sends the message to state agencies—which do the lion’s share of enforcement work—that they too can cut back.

And, in fact, the proposed budget does provide states with less money for enforcement.  The State and Tribal Assistance Grant (STAG) program in part helps states enforce the nation’s environmental laws.  The Obama budget proposes cuts to both the clean air-climate change program and the clean water program.   

Maddeningly, agency officials have not put up a fight about the cuts, instead pretending they can do more with less.  Increased self-monitoring is given a modern-sounding buzzword, NextGen, and touted as embracing “innovative” ways to increase compliance and reduce pollution.  The press release announcing the agency’s decreased enforcement in 2013 downplayed the fact that fewer pounds of pollution were reduced and instead bragged about its settlement with Transocean over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.   

This budget is mostly focused on allowing EPA to develop rules to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change.  But EPA has umpteen other responsibilities.  By sugarcoating the effects of budget cuts, Administrator Gina McCarthy and other political appointees are providing cover for a president who does not understand that developing new rules is less than half the battle. 

The agency should take a page from the Food and Drug Administration’s Michael Taylor.  When testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, the deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine was open and honest about the effect of budget cuts.  “We cannot achieve FDA’s vision of a modern food safety system and a safer food supply without a significant increase in resources,” he testified. 

EPA will not achieve its mission of protecting human health and the environment if Congress and the president continue to slash its budget.  By taking the budget cuts as a given and responding with untried or inferior solutions, EPA conveys the message that it can accomplish all of its complex responsibilities with ever-shrinking resources.  If legislators and the president believe that budget cuts do not have adverse consequences for the agency’s fundamental mission, they are likely to have no qualms about making even further, devastating cuts. 



© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform