The Environmental Protection Agency has collected roughly half as much in civil penalties from polluters during President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House than it did under the past three presidents in the same time frame, according to research released on Thursday.
The assessment by the nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project also found that Trump’s EPA settled roughly 44 percent fewer civil cases involving violations of environmental laws. Penalties collected totaled 49 percent of the average of the three previous presidents’ first year in office.
Eric Schaeffer, head of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement, said the declines send the wrong signal to would-be polluters, coming amid cuts in agency staffing that may reduce the agency’s ability to pursue violators.
“President Trump’s dismantling of the EPA means violators are less likely to be caught, making illegal pollution cheaper,” Schaeffer said.
According to his organization’s analysis, the Trump administration lodged consent decrees for 48 civil cases involving environmental violations and collected $30 million in penalties from Jan. 20, 2017, to Jan. 20, 2018. That compares with 71 cases and $71 million under President Barack Obama, 112 cases and $50 million under President George W. Bush and 73 cases and $55 million under President Bill Clinton.
The decline in cases comes on top of a backlog of violations of air, water and other environmental laws that haven’t yet led to civil claims or settlements, including many from facilities in the Rust Belt, where voters helped elect Trump, Schaeffer said.
“These are the very people President Trump said he would help, and they are the ones getting hit the hardest,” Schaeffer said.
Vigorous enforcement of environmental laws is important to deter potential polluters, said Judith Enck, a former administrator of EPA’s region 2, which encompasses New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“If you don’t have strong enforcement, it’s unfair to the many companies that invest the time and training to comply with our nation’s environmental laws,” Enck said in a call with reporters Thursday. “It’s no longer a level playing field if penalties are not assessed or they are so small that they are just viewed in corporate boardrooms as the cost of doing business.”
Environmental enforcement trends can vary over time. Because cases take years to develop, the bulk of the EPA’s caseload during Trump’s first year in office would derive from violations and enforcement actions started under Obama — and the numbers now may reflect a steady decline in federal inspections and evaluations since fiscal year 2012.
According to EPA data released last week, the agency initiated more than 1,900 and concluded nearly 2,000 civil judicial and administrative cases in fiscal 2017, reflecting a downward trend that goes back at least nine years.
The Environmental Integrity Project’s analysis also did not include criminal environmental cases, matters involving toxic Superfund sites and administrative actions that EPA uses to resolve smaller violations.
In a statement, EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said the agency “works with state partners on enforcement oversight.”
“Results of the agency’s enforcement work are reliant upon work that takes place over multiple years,” Bowman said. “We appreciate enforcement staff’s continuous and consistent hard work to ensure compliance of environmental laws and hold people accountable if the violate the law.”
And EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has vowed to get tough on corporations violating environmental laws, telling Bloomberg News in an interview last October that “we’re going to do enforcement — to go after bad actors and go after polluters.”
The cost of pollution control steps that defendants have agreed to in settlements with the Trump administration is also down by comparison to the first year of the Obama and Bush administrations, according to the assessment. The value of that relief can swing dramatically depending on the timing of big settlements.
And critics say at least some of those settlement estimates have been inflated, citing an October settlement with ExxonMobil in which the oil company agreed to pay $300 million to resolve air pollution violations tied to eight chemical plants in Texas and Louisiana. But that $300 million estimate includes money the company has spent since 2011 to comply with permit requirements — well before the case concluded.