WASHINGTON (CN) — Deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal investigation unit have accompanied a steep reduction in the number of new criminal cases filed against polluters and other violators of environmental laws according to a new report.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, released its findings under the headline “EPA Criminal Pollution Enforcement Withering Away: Number of Criminal Investigators, Cases Opened, and Convictions Nosediving.”
Among the findings:
The number of agents in the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division has dropped by more than half since 2003, to 147, far below the minimum of 200 agents required by the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990.
New criminal cases have fallen by nearly two-thirds since 2012. The pace for this fiscal year will produce just 120 new cases, a modern low.
Successful criminal prosecutions have declined by nearly half since 2014.
“This evaporation of criminal enforcement is snowballing, in that fewer agents generate fewer cases leading to ever-fewer convictions down the road,” PEER directors Jeff Ruch said in releasing the report on Thursday.
“The spigot sustaining complex corporate anti-pollution prosecutions – which take years from genesis to fruition – is being turned off at the source.”
Investigators in the criminal division are largely experienced attorneys and accountants, who untangle complex, often massive lawsuits, which can cross institutional borders and take years to resolve.
Although the Trump administration has been openly hostile to environmental regulation, the report indicates that the slide in enforcement began under the Obama administration. In 2014, the SPA claims that a new enforcement program, Next Generation Compliance, would make oversight and enforcement easier.
But Ruch said there is no proof of that. Massive polluter scandals, such as emissions cheating by Volkswagen, have been caught — but not by the EPA. Scientists from West Virginia University uncovered that fraud and reported it to the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Ruch says the cuts to the EPA budget are politically motivated, with particular favor shown to criminal violators of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.
“The number of new clean water cases opened this year is more than two-thirds below those opened in 2012, with clean air cases plunging by more than three-quarters annually from those opened five years ago,” PEER said in a statement. “[EPA administrator Scott] Pruitt’s promised regulatory rollbacks in both areas will likely drive enforcement even lower as convictions will be harder to obtain with standards in flux.”
Ruch says the “dismal figures” do not take into account even more severe cutbacks Pruitt is planning.
“Pruitt’s known aversion to punishing corporate polluters threatens to hollow out what remains of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division,” Ruch said.
By the end of September, the EPA hopes to spend $12 million on employee buyouts and early retirement packages.
Ruch said the federal government’s abdication of its environmental responsibilities will throw the burden on the states and the public.
“Scott Pruitt’s tenure may user in the golden age of citizen enforcement of environmental laws,” Ruch said. “With the abdication of the EPA, citizens, states and localities will have to take public health protection into their own hands.”
The EPA did respond to a request for comment.