A recent press release from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that enforcement data has been declining for ten years. From 2018 to 2021, the number of inspections, criminal investigations and prosecutions decreased by approximately 50% compared to the averages between 2002 and 2017. The amount of fines paid by offenders also decreased by 28% for civil cases and 49% for criminal cases.
A small sign of hope is that in fiscal year 2021 fines were closer to normal when adjusted for inflation. Unfortunately, the number of cases referred to the Justice Department by the EPA for civil lawsuits was less than 50% of the annual average for 2002-2017 and criminal cases opened and polluters charged were at their second lowest in twenty years. Fines and incarceration rates were at rock bottom.
Eric Schaeffer is the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former director of the Office of Civil Enforcement at the EPA.
“From a long-term perspective based on twenty years of data, almost all performance measures – inspections, criminal investigations, civil cases dismissed or concluded by the Department of Justice, criminal charges, civil penalties or criminal fines paid, costs of cleanup recovered from polluters — indicates a serious decline in the EPA’s ability to enforce our environmental laws. This is a wake-up call that the Biden administration must respond to before it’s too late,” said said Schaeffer.
“While the past four years have seen new lows, the decline in EPA enforcement really began during the Obama administration’s second term when the budget ax hit the EPA hard.”
While fluctuations in enforcement from year to year are to be expected, current numbers appear to reflect a systematic decline. Over the past ten years, the EPA has lost 700 law enforcement officers, or about 22 percent of its total workforce.
The problem does not lie entirely on the shoulders of the presidents. Biden has asked for staff increases for the EPA, but a dysfunctional Congress seems unlikely to approve it. The nominee to lead the EPA’s enforcement program, David Uhlmann, was nominated on June 22, 2021, but is still awaiting Senate confirmation.
On his first day in the Oval Office, Biden pledged to “hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.”
Without the cooperation of the legislature and the states to rebuild and hold accountable the EPA and other government institutions, it is unlikely that he will be able to deliver on his commitment.
By Zach Fitzner, Terre.com Personal editor