WASHINGTON (CN) – The Environmental Protection Agency’s prosecution of polluters is at its lowest level in three decades, a watchdog group reports.
According to Justice Department data gathered by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the EPA opened 166 criminal cases against polluters in 2018 – 60 percent less than in 2011, and 72 percent less than 1988.
When asked for comment, the EPA pointed to a statement released last week that said “while our overall number of case conclusions declined slightly in FY2018 from 1,978 to 1,818 cases, EPA is continuing to direct its resources to the most significant and impactful cases.”
But vice president of litigation for EarthJustice Patrice Simms said that the EPA serves a vital role in enforcing environmental laws, because only the federal government can press criminal charges against major polluters.
And only the most “egregious of cases” are referred for prosecution, cases Simms said “are really the most compelling, where the most significant kinds of harms are involved,” like toxin dumping in ground water or oceans.
If the EPA begins to “look the other way” with major pollution violations from actors knowingly breaking the law, the deterrence factor of enforcement is compromised, Simms continued.
Tom Pelton from the Environmental Integrity Project said in an email that the EPA’s inaction means the average American is breathing in more pollution and fishing in filthier waters.
“When large, corporate polluters – like oil refineries and petrochemical plants – know that EPA is not acting aggressively to enforce environmental laws, they will tend to cut corners by not installing pollution control equipment or operating in a careful and responsible way that protects public health,” Pelton wrote.
Simms added that a huge amount of data is submitted to federal agencies to ensure compliance with the law, and the EPA is one of the only agencies that can review that data and open criminal cases if necessary.
"If they're not investigating these claims,” Simms said, “it's very difficult for anyone else to even realize what claims they ought to be pursuing, because that information is uniquely in their possession."
At the end of his confirmation hearing Wednesday, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler addressed PEER’s assertion that the “EPA generated the fewest new criminal case referrals for prosecution” this year since 1988. They don’t make criminal referrals, he said at the hearing, they “make requests for prosecutorial assistance.”
He also countered that, in tracking the number of new criminal enforcement cases this year, the EPA found they “opened more criminal enforcement cases than 2017, and that reversed a downward trend that started in 2011.”
Wheeler is expected to fully assume the role of EPA administrator following Wednesday’s hearing. According to the Associated Press, he has given the states more leeway to enforce their own pollution regulations. Simms, however, said it’s “impossible for anyone else to pick up the slack” of the EPA’s full enforcement.