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Environmental Penalties Down Under President Trump

An oil refinery in Richmond, Calif.
Paul Sakuma
An oil refinery in Richmond, Calif.

Since President Trump took office in January, enforcement of environmental laws has dropped dramatically, compared with past administrations. A study released by the Environmental Integrity Project finds that $12 million in civil penalties have been collected from violators in 26 cases between January and the end of July.

That's significantly less than the number of cases prosecuted and the penalties collected under the same six month period by the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations. Under Barack Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted 34 cases, collecting $36 million in the time period. Under George W. Bush, 31 cases were lodged, bringing in $30 million in penalties. Under Bill Clinton, there were 45 cases filed, with penalties totaling $25 million.

So far, penalties collected by Trump's EPA are 60 percent lower than the average of the three previous administrations.

"President Trump campaigned on a promise of 'law and order,' but apparently law enforcement for big polluters is not what he had in mind," said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA. "The early returns show fewer cases with smaller penalties for violations of environmental law. If this drop-off in environmental enforcement continues, it will leave more people breathing more air pollution or swimming in waterways with more waste."

The analysis by Environmental Integrity Project, a nonpartisan watchdog group made up of former EPA officials, looked at civil environmental law cases referred to the Justice Department by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The group is also studying Superfund cases and criminal environmental law prosecutions under the Trump administration and plans later reports on those enforcement actions. Most environmental law violations are resolved by consent decrees, which may take months or years to negotiate. But the Environmental Integrity Project says the number and the type of cases filed by an administration in its first months give an indication of how aggressive it will be in enforcing environmental laws.

In some cases involving violations of the Clear Air Act, the EPA tallies how much pollution is likely to be reduced under a consent decree. Many of those cases involve particulates, substances like sulfur dioxide which can cause asthma and heart disease and lead to premature deaths. By tracking how must pollution will be reduced, the EPA estimates how many premature deaths were avoided by the enforcement action. Using that yardstick, in the first six months of the Bush administration, at least 549 premature deaths were avoided. Under Obama, at least 184 premature deaths were avoided. For the Trump administration, that figure is much lower. At least seven premature deaths were avoided.

In issuing its report, the Environmental Integrity Project says, compared with earlier administrations, so far the fines imposed on polluters by the Trump administration have been relatively modest. Bruce Buckheit, a former director of Air Enforcement at the EPA during the Clinton and Bush administration says, "I've seen the pendulum swing, but never as far as what appears to be going on today." He worries that a slowdown in enforcement sends the wrong signal to polluters. "We see in the data," Buckheit says, "a clear signal to industry that they need not be concerned about federal environmental enforcement."

Judith Enck, former EPA administrator for New York and New Jersey calls current EPA head Scott Pruitt, "The worst EPA administrator in history." Enck says Pruitt appears because he appears "unwilling or unable to carry out the basic statutory mission of the EPA, which is enforcement of our environmental laws."

Responding to the study, Patrick Traylor, EPA deputy assistant administrator said, "As the report admits, '[t]he data for the Trump Administration's record so far is just a snapshot and trends vary over time.'" Traylor says the study's "assertions say much more about enforcement actions commenced in the later years of the Obama Administration than it does about actions taken in the beginning of the Trump Administration. Despite this unfair report, EPA is committed to enforcing environmental laws to correct noncompliance and promote cleanup of contaminated sites."

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.