Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has promised that regulatory rollbacks don't mean a "free pass" for those who violate environmental laws, but an analysis of EPA enforcement data shows that the Trump administration has taken substantially less action against polluters when compared with the previous two administrations. Small towns may be suffering because of it.
"The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the EPA during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. During the first nine months under Mr. Pruitt's leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama's first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush's over the same time period," Eric Lipton and Danielle Ivory report for The New York Times.
That's not the only difference. The EPA sought $50.4 million in civil penalties from polluters in cases initiated after Trump took office, which (adjusted for inflation), is 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought in the same time period and 70 of what the Bush administration sought.
The EPA can force companies to retrofit their factories to decrease pollution, an action known as injunctive relief. Trump's administration has ordered about $1.2 billion worth of such retrofitting; adjusted for inflation, that's 12 percent of what was ordered under Obama and 48 percent of what was ordered under Bush. The Times' data, analysis and methodology was vetted by EPA officials who served under presidents Obama and Bush to ensure accuracy.
Part of the reason for the drop in enforcement may be that EPA enforcement officers no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests necessary for building a case against polluters without receiving permission from Washington. The Times' records analysis showed a drastic drop in requests for tests after the EPA enforcement officers lost that autonomy.
Another reason for the drop in enforcement may be that offices are simply short-handed. More than 700 employees have left the EPA since January, many of whom were offered buyouts deliberately aimed at reducing the size of the agency. Some higher level political appointments have been left vacant for months also.
"Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt's team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives," Lipton and Ivory report.
The fallout from the EPA's philosophical change is illustrated clearly in East Liverpool, a small town in Ohio where the residents enthusiastically voted for Trump. Under the Obama administration, the EPA gathered evidence and began a case against Heritage Thermal Services because their hazardous waste incinerator near downtown was repeatedly and illegally polluting the town's air. In 2013 a breach in the incinerator spewed toxic ash containing lead and arsenic into nearby neighborhoods and set off fires at the plant. But under the Trump administrator that EPA has done nothing to punish the plant's owner.
"The Times identified more than a dozen companies or plants like Heritage Thermal that received notices of violation toward the end of the Obama administration, but as of late November had not faced EPA penalties," Lipton and Ivory report. One of them was S.H. Bell, also in East Liverpool, that allowed toxic levels of dust with heavy metals like manganese to drift beyond its property line. Tests found that the area near S.H. Bell had the highest levels of ambient manganese in the U.S., and research led by the University of Cincinnati found that children in East Liverpool appeared to have lower I.Q. scores because of the manganese present in their bodies.