The Environmental Protection Agency was unusually lax in 2018. During the last fiscal year, which ended in October, the agency saw fewer prosecution referrals against polluters than at any other point in the past 30 years. And the Government Accountability Office (GAO) is investigating why.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization that rallies anonymous government employees to discuss environmental concerns in their workplace, published the new findings on criminal enforcement at the EPA on Tuesday. Overall, the EPA under President Donald Trump made only 166 criminal referrals in the 2018 fiscal year, a 60 percent reduction from 2011. The level of criminal enforcement hasn’t been this low since the days of Ronald Reagan, per PEER’s analysis.
When looking at convictions (aka the polluters that are actually held accountable), the EPA closed out the last fiscal year with a measly 62. Past fiscal years under Obama regularly saw the number of convictions rise above 100. And things aren’t looking much brighter as we begin the 2019 fiscal year, which has seen only 24 referrals so far. PEER anticipates this year will be “another all-time enforcement low mark,” per its press release.
The GAO launched its investigation into all this back in October, a fact which it disclosed to The Hill on Tuesday. Its inquiry stems from 2017 data, which also showed a decline in enforcement. The office hasn’t finalized a report but should by the fall, according to The Hill. The EPA’s own Inspector General Office is looking into the matter, too.
In response to the numbers in the new PEER report, the EPA directed Earther to a recent news release which includes background on its enforcement policies and hails the 2018 fiscal year as a year of “enforcement accomplishments.” While the agency didn’t see a large number of enforcement cases, it claims that “large cases” (like the one detailed in the release involving Fiat Chrysler) really show off the agency’s ability to lay down the law.
But PEER’s reporting suggests the agency may not be maintaining the staffing levels needed to aggressively chase down polluters. According to its analysis, the agency only has about 130 criminal investigators today, while federal law requires a minimum of 200 agents. The EPA told Earther it’s hiring more agents in its Criminal Investigation Division but didn’t elaborate on when or how many. It also didn’t confirm whether it, in fact, has only 130 agents as PEER claims. Spokesperson John Konkus did mention, however, that “the previous administration was responsible for decreasing the number of agents by over 20 percent.”
An optimistic read on the new PEER report is that the numbers are low because there’s less environmental crime happening. The goal, of course, is to have industry meeting state and federal standards so that the EPA doesn’t have to strong-arm them. However, that seems unlikely given the Trump administration’s track record. As the New York Times discovered in 2017, Trump’s EPA has worked to place limitations on enforcement officers’ abilities to request information from industry that would help them measure pollution levels and make prosecution referrals.
“Fewer referrals send a signal to industry that you don’t need to comply with the law because they’re not going to be prosecuting very aggressively if at all,” Dan Reich, who served as an assistant to counsel for EPA’s Region 9 until 2017, told Earther.
This, in turn, creates incentive to break the law. Why spend extra money working to decrease emissions or pollution levels if no one’s holding you accountable? Or as Reich put it, “If you stop doing referrals, you’ve stopped protecting the people.”