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EPA enforcement of environmental laws has seriously declined

A recent press release from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that enforcement data has declined for ten years. From 2018 to 2021, there was a decline in the number of inspections, criminal investigations, and prosecutions by about 50 percent compared to averages between 2002 and 2017. The amount of fines paid by violators was also down by 28 percent for civil cases and by 49 percent for criminal cases. 

A small sign of hope is that in the 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 prosecution was less than 50 percent of the annual average for 2002-2017 and criminal cases opened and polluters charged was at its second lowest in twenty years. Fines and incarceration rates were at their lowest.      

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 every measure of performance – inspections, criminal investigations, civil cases referred to or concluded by the Justice Department, criminal defendants charged, civil penalties or criminal fines paid, cleanup costs recovered from polluters – points to a serious decline in EPA’s capacity to enforce our environmental laws. That is a wake-up call the Biden Administration needs to answer before it is too late,” said Schaeffer. 

“While the last four years saw new lows, EPA enforcement’s decline really began in the second term of the Obama Administration when the budget ax fell hard on EPA.”

Although fluctuations in enforcement from year to year are to be expected, the current numbers seem to reflect systematic decline. Over the last ten years, EPA has lost 700 enforcement staff, approximately 22 percent of its whole workforce. 

The problem doesn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of presidents. Biden requested increases in staff for the EPA, but a dysfunctional Congress seems unlikely to approve it. The nominee for lead of EPA’s enforcement program, David Uhlmann, was put forward on June 22, 2021, yet is still waiting to be confirmed by the Senate.   

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 cooperation from the legislature, and states to rebuild and empower the EPA and other government institutions, it’s unlikely a commitment he can keep.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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