Environmental Prosecutions Drop to Lowest Level in Decades

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Prosecutions of environmental crimes dropped to historic lows under the Trump administration last fiscal year and one legal expert believes that could endanger public health.

“There’s a risk that unenforced violations could lead to fires, leaks, spills, and contamination,” said Ethan Elkind, climate program director at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

A scene from the 2014 pipeline oil spill in South Carolina.

The number of environmental prosecutions in fiscal year 2019 was lower than any year during the Obama, Bush or Clinton administrations, according to Justice Department data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). 

There were 302 environmental prosecutions in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a 10% drop from five years ago and a 64.5% decline from 20 years ago.

Better compliance by industries could account for part of that change, but the Trump administration’s drive to favor working with industries over policing them probably plays a bigger role, according to Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity

“There’s a pretty good signal from this administration that enforcement of violations is not the priority,” Hartl said. “The priority is working with industry to green light projects.”

Another reason for the decline could be years of budget shortfalls for the Environmental Protection Agency since Republicans took control of Congress in 2015, Hartl said. Under the Trump administration, the EPA also saw staffing levels cut by 8%, accomplished through a hiring freeze and buyouts offered to longtime employees under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.  

A majority of prosecutions in fiscal year 2019 came from investigations by the U.S. Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service, which accounted for 154 of 302 prosecutions. The EPA referred 62 cases for prosecution, making it the second biggest source. The Coast Guard came in third with 36 prosecutions.

Prosecutions are not the only environmental enforcement metric declining under the Trump administration. Civil fines and penalties for environmental violations have also gone down.

The EPA fined polluters $69 million in fiscal year 2018, the lowest since the agency created its enforcement office in 1994. The agency also carried out 22 civil investigations that year, compared to 125 in 2016 during the Obama administration.

“The main signal it sends is if you’re a violator, now is a good time to settle,” Hartl said.

In August, the Justice Department also announced it would stop using supplemental environmental projects, which direct companies to do environmental mitigation work as part of settlement agreements. Those requirements were seen as “very burdensome” for industry, even though they allowed companies to pay less for violations, Hartl said.

The decision to make environmental crimes less of a priority does not automatically mean polluters will get away scot-free, Hartl said. The typical statute of limitations for environmental crimes is six years, and those violators could still be prosecuted when a new administration comes into power.

“Just because the prosecution was denied doesn’t mean it’s necessarily over forever,” Hartl said. “They still can bring charges down the road.”

According to Elkind, fewer prosecutions for environmental crimes are part of a larger strategy by the Trump administration to weaken environmental protection and benefit industry. That strategy includes pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, dismantling the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, weakening vehicle emissions standards, eliminating an advisory board of scientists, and a proposal to limit the use of nonpublic data in EPA decision making, which critics say would exclude important scientific studies that use confidential patient information.

Elkind believes some of these policies have led to worsening air quality. A recent study found fine particulate matter, one of the worst forms of air pollution, increased 5.5% from 2016 to 2018, after a 24.2% decline from 2009 to 2016.

A Justice Department spokesperson disputed the report, saying it has “devoted substantial resources to larger, more complex investigations with more benefit to the environment and public health.

“Such cases have resulted in billions of dollars in criminal penalties,” the spokesperson said by email.

“Environmental crimes have evolved over the years from one-off pollution or poaching crimes, into more sophisticated criminal conspiracies in such areas as international wildlife trafficking, seafood mislabeling, federal program and consumer fraud, or interstate dog-fighting,” the spokesperson continued.

The EPA  did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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