Report says civil penalties 60 percent below the average
Study compares civil enforcement action at this point in terms
The Trump administration has lodged fewer civil cases against polluters and is collecting smaller average penalties than those of the past three presidents, according to a report released Thursday.
During Donald Trump’s first six months in office, civil penalties paid for environmental violations were 60 percent smaller on average than by this time in the first year of former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Environmental Integrity Project. There also have been fewer enforcement cases -- 26 under Trump by July 31, versus 34 under Obama.
While enforcement trends can vary over time, the relatively low numbers of cases involving violations of air, water and other environmental laws worry some former Environmental Protection Agency officials who say it suggests the Trump administration and EPA chief Scott Pruitt aren’t prioritizing enforcement.
"It’s a very slow start," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and a former director of civil enforcement at the EPA under Clinton. "It may change. We hope it changes. But I’m pessimistic, because Pruitt has never made enforcement a priority."
Pruitt, who previously served as Oklahoma’s attorney general, was asked at his Senate confirmation hearing about his decision to dismantle a unit in that state that was dedicated to environmental violations. Pruitt told senators that other state agencies played a central role bringing enforcement actions, highlighted a list of cases brought under his watch and said he had "taken very constructive steps against those that have violated the law."
Patrick Traylor, the deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s enforcement office, said the report makes assertions based on a snapshot of the data and is "unfair."
The assessment says "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," Traylor said. "Despite this unfair report, EPA is committed to enforcing environmental laws to correct noncompliance and promote cleanup of contaminated sites."
The decline in civil penalties and cases tied to air and water pollution violations could reflect efforts by the Obama administration to hurriedly conclude cases it was pursuing before Trump took office. Most EPA civil enforcement actions are resolved through consent decrees, with those settlements coming after intense negotiations with corporate executives that can stretch for months or years. Additionally, because the analyzed data is limited to the first six months new presidents were in office, one big settlement could skew the results.
For instance, Obama’s first six months included a $12 million fine against BP Plc, in connection with an explosion at its Texas City refinery in 2005 that killed 15 workers and injured more than 170 people. That contributed to the Obama administration’s six-month total of 34 cases lodged and $36 million in civil penalties.
But Schaeffer said the number and quality of the cases resolved during the early days of the Trump administration can help indicate whether enforcement is on track and whether the new administrator is directly involved in reviewing settlements, potentially leading to delays in approving them.
"If this drop-off in environmental enforcement continues, it will leave more people breathing more air pollution or swimming in waterways with more waste," he said.
Pruitt may be forced to take a more decisive role because Trump’s EPA doesn’t yet have a confirmed assistant administrator leading civil enforcement. The Senate Environment and Public Works committee held a hearing for Susan Bodine, a committee staffer and Trump’s nominee for the role, in June.
Under Trump, 26 civil cases have been lodged involving violations of air, water and other environmental laws. Penalties combined to total $12 million, compared to $36 million under Obama, $30 million under Bush and $25 million under Clinton, according to the Environmental Integrity Project analysis.
The analysis excludes Superfund actions involving cleanup of toxic sites. Because the report focuses on civil court cases, it does not capture any changes in the frequency and size of criminal and administrative cases.
The report also excludes lawsuits that haven’t settled. In May, the Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV alleging that diesel engines in Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicles and Ram 1500 pickups for model years 2014 to 2016 perform worse in normal driving than during emissions tests.
The largest penalty under the Trump administration so far was a $2.5 million fine against Vopak Terminals North America Inc., for air pollution violations near the Houston Ship Channel, including alleged excess emissions of benzene and volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog. The Trump administration also reached settlement agreements with civil penalties against Alaska seafood processor Westward Seafoods and chemical manufacturer Momentive Performance Materials Silicones, LLC.