Trump’s EPA is reluctant to punish law-breaking polluters

A recent report shows that law enforcement at the agency is declining.

 

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is more likely to give polluters a pass when they violate laws intended to keep the air healthy and water clean, according to recent reporting by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a watchdog group.

By analyzing public data and interviewing past and current EPA employees, EDGI documented notable declines in agency law enforcement this year, particularly in EPA Region 8, which includes Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas and 27 Indigenous nations. According to an internal EPA report, by mid-year Region 8 had opened 53 percent fewer enforcement cases in 2018 than in 2017. And it concluded only 53 civil cases in 2018, less than half the number in any year since at least 2006. Nationally, EDGI found a 38 percent drop in the number of orders requiring polluters to comply with the law, and a 50 percent drop in the number of fines.

An oil pump outside Huntington Power plant in Huntington, Utah. Obama-era regulations restricted emissions from the plant.
George Frey/Getty Images

EDGI’s analyses are based on provisional numbers, which the EPA routinely cleans up at the end of each year, so the exact figures could change when the agency’s annual enforcement report is released. Still, EDGI expects the general trend to hold.

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

In the short term, dialing back enforcement could be a particularly effective way to relieve industry of the burdens of environmental protections. Donald Trump’s EPA appointees have tried to formally roll back regulations, such as the Clean Power Plan and a rule safeguarding water from toxic coal ash. But it’s a slow and public process that invites lawsuits. Simply declining to enforce the law, however, can subtly accomplish the same thing, because it happens largely out of public view, and EPA administrators have wide discretion over it.

EPA officials deny ignoring violations of the law. “There has been no retreat from working with states, communities, and regulated entities to ensure compliance with our environmental laws,” spokesperson Maggie Sauerhage wrote in an email. “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.”

Still, the agency acknowledges a shift in focus from “enforcement” to “compliance.” That means it’s likely to work less as a cop than an adviser with the companies it regulates, an approach critics say could incentivize companies to cut corners.

“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,’ ” explained David Janik, an attorney who managed Region 8’s legal enforcement program until 2011. But punishment helps you achieve compliance, Janik added. It deters polluters from spoiling the air and water in the first place, just as traffic tickets make drivers think twice about speeding. “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.’ ”

In some cases, lackluster enforcement since Trump took office appears to have been a boon to corporate pocketbooks, while the environmental benefits remain murky. Consider the difference in how a series of oil and gas cases were handled under President Barack Obama.

In 2015, the EPA and the state of Colorado jointly entered into a landmark settlement agreement with Noble Energy covering thousands of gas storage tanks that were leaking volatile organic compounds. VOCs are part of the toxic soup that contributes to smog levels on Colorado’s Front Range that exceed federal limits, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Cases involving chemical leaking from gas storage tanks have not been punished to the same extent under the current administration as they have in the past. Pictured are storage tanks in McKenzie County, North Dakota.

The settlement required Noble to pay a nearly $5 million fine, spend $60 million to reduce VOC emissions, and report its progress to the public. Two parallel cases resulted in smaller, but still substantial costs to companies in Colorado and North Dakota.

But under EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, three similar cases came with remarkably cushier terms, according to the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. In all three, the EPA declined to assess fines for the violations at all. And it’s unclear what, if anything, the companies were required to do to fix the problems. The companies were all Oklahoma-based, raising questions of favoritism from Pruitt, a pro-oil-and-gas Oklahoman.

The Noble case was part of an Obama-era National Enforcement Initiatives program focused on air pollution from oil and gas drilling. National initiatives historically targeted problems particular to certain industries and they’re where big enforcement cases were often made. But in August, Susan Bodine, EPA’s current head of enforcement, announced that the program was being renamed “National Compliance Initiatives,” and that the agency would discontinue the campaign on oil and gas in 2019, a move industry pushed for.

“It’s really about who’s going to benefit,” Sullivan said. “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.”

Contributing Editor Cally Carswell writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!