Trump’s EPA stops punishing big polluters for breaking federal law

Under the departed Scott Pruitt, EPA largely stopped enforcing pollution laws, especially in the Western states

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published January 3, 2019 6:00AM (EST)

A layer of pollution can be seen hovering over Los Angeles, California (Getty/Frederic J. Brown)
A layer of pollution can be seen hovering over Los Angeles, California (Getty/Frederic J. Brown)

The Environmental Protection Agency has increasingly stopped punishing polluters caught violating federal laws intended to maintain air and water safety, according to a report by the watchdog group Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI).

The group found steep drops in the EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws in 2018, particularly in the EPA’s Region 8, which is made up of Colorado, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and the Dakotas, as well as 27 Indigenous nations. According to the EPA’s internal numbers, the agency opened 53 percent fewer enforcement cases in the region in 2018 compared to the previous year. The agency concluded just 53 cases in the region, less than half of the cases closed in Region 8 in every year going back to at least 2006. Between 2010 and 2015, the region saw more than 100 cases settled each year, Pacific Standard reported.

Nationwide, EDGI reports that EPA enforcement saw a 38 percent drop in orders compelling polluters to comply with the law and a 50 percent drop in fines.

“It’s another iteration of EPA’s industry-friendly approach,” EDGI’s Marianne Sullivan, a public health expert at William Paterson University, told High Country News. “It says we’re prioritizing industry’s needs and desires over the health of our environment and the health of our communities.”

The EPA’s attempts to roll back regulations have largely been caught up in the courts so the agency appears to be doing its own internal rollback, declining to police the laws it is responsible for enforcing by essentially ignoring the violations.

The EPA denied ignoring the law.

“There has been no retreat from working with states, communities, and regulated entities to ensure compliance with our environmental laws,” EPA spokeswoman Maggie Sauerhage told High Country News. “Focusing only on the number of federal lawsuits filed or the amount of penalties collected fails to capture the full range of compliance tools we use.”

But David Janik, who managed the EPA’s Region 8 legal enforcement program, said that focusing on compliance instead of enforcement “is a way of saying, ‘We might make people get back into compliance, but we’re resistant to the idea of punishment.’”

Janik told High Country News that enforcement is what helps achieve compliance.

“If I go 90 and I get caught, I’m paying $200 for punishment,” he said. “If one chemical company has a big case and they pay $40 million to settle it, other companies will say, ‘Maybe I should hire another guy to make sure we don’t slip into noncompliance.’ ”

The rollback of enforcement has helped companies save tens of millions of dollars in fines in some cases.

In 2015, the EPA and Colorado settled a case with Noble Energy after its gas storage tanks were found to leak volatile organic compounds. The VOCs were linked to smog on Colorado’s Front Range that has had alarming respiratory health effects. Under the settlement, Noble had to pay a $5 million fine and spend $60 million to reduce the leaks. Two similar cases resulted in substantial fines for the violators.

But three similar cases ended in much better terms for the violators after Scott Pruitt, Trump's first pick as EPA chief, took over. In all three cases, EPA declined to assess any violations at all and it’s unclear whether the companies involved were asked to do anything to address the problem.

The Noble settlement was part of an Obama administration program called National Enforcement Initiatives, which sought to limit the air pollution from oil and gas drilling. This year, EPA announced that the program would be renamed “National Compliance Initiatives” and would no longer target the oil and gas industries.

“It’s really about who’s going to benefit,” Sullivan told High Country News. “If industry doesn’t have to capture as much pollution, that may be good for their bottom line. But it puts the burden on the public. You can’t pollute for free. Either industry pays to capture it, or people pay with their health.”


By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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