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Bush's EPA Is Pursuing Fewer Polluters

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department secured $13 billion in such corrective measures from polluters in 2005-06, up from about $4 billion in the final two years of the Clinton administration.

"Environmental prosecutions continue to be very important to the department," Roehrkasse said. Settlements and judgments that impose corrective measures "protect the nation's environment and safeguard the public's health and welfare," he said.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell, whose panel oversees environmental enforcement, disagrees. "Where once a polluter could expect criminal prosecution, there are now civil settlements. Where once there were criminal penalties, there are now taxpayer subsidies," Dingell (D-Mich.) said.

The environmental crimes unit at Justice Department headquarters in Washington has grown to a record 40 prosecutors. Last year, it secured near-record highs in years of confinement and criminal penalties, Roehrkasse said.

But environmental prosecutions by U.S. attorneys' offices have sharply dropped as prosecutors facing new pressures on issues such as terrorism and immigration take away resources for environmental prosecutions and try to divert cases to the main Justice Department, EPA agents said.

"Environmental crimes are simply not in the U.S. attorney top 10 priorities," said one senior EPA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the news media.

Prosecutors counter that the EPA has fewer agents and is bringing them fewer cases. "We're not turning away environmental crimes in order to prosecute other crimes. They are just not being presented in the first case," said Don DeGabrielle, the U.S. attorney in Houston.

EPA memos show that investigators also have encountered new obstacles to their long-standing practice of directly referring cases to federal or state prosecutors. A new policy distributed May 25 requires agents to seek prior approval from the head of their division and establishes new paperwork procedures. This has slowed agents' ability to make referrals, congressional investigators said.

Nakayama said he was not "personally familiar" with the new policy and would look into it.

In the fall of 2001, EPA agents descended on a vacant Massachusetts field seeking to prove that a state agency broke the law by demolishing a century-old mental hospital without first removing the asbestos inside.

The investigators detected high concentrations of the cancer-causing material in the buried debris. They located witnesses who said state officials knew about the asbestos but scrapped a plan to remove it before demolition because of the cost, investigative reports show.

The EPA's top New England law enforcement official recommended charging the state agency and some of its workers with crimes. But after waiting more than three years to decide, the U.S. attorney's office in Boston declined prosecution.

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