The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under Trump, EPA inspections fall to a 10-year low

The agency’s inspection rate last year is half of what it was in 2010, while the civil penalties levied against polluters is the lowest since 1994.

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, listens during a Bloomberg Technology Television interview in San Francisco, on Monday. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Under President Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency inspected fewer industrial facilities during 2018 than at any time over the past decade, according to data released by the agency Friday.

The sharp drop in inspections and evaluations last fiscal year — to roughly 10,600 — is only half the number EPA conducted at its peak in 2010, and continues a downward trend that began in 2012. Other enforcement activities at the agency experienced similar declines, according to EPA figures: The number of civil cases the division started and completed in 2018 hit a 10-year low, and the $69 million in civil penalties it leveled represents the lowest in nearly a quarter-century.

The agency relies on inspections of manufacturing facilities, oil and gas operations, and power plants to identify and crack down on polluters across the country. Steep budget cuts in recent years have led to a modest decline in these activities since 2012. But that trend has accelerated since Trump took office, in part because EPA’s leadership has said it can clean up the environment more effectively by cooperating with industry to improve the private sector’s performance.

In a statement Friday, Susan Bodine, EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said that the agency had made progress in cleaning up the air Americans breathe and the water they drink, in part by working alongside those it regulates.

“Let there be no mistake — EPA enforcement will continue to correct non-compliance using all the tools at its disposal, including imposing civil penalties to maintain a level playing field and deter future misconduct," Bodine said. "To suggest otherwise undermines our enforcement efforts and fails to acknowledge the good work performed by EPA enforcement staff every year.”

On its own website, however, EPA emphasizes the importance of conducting regular inspections. “Inspections are an integral part of EPA’s compliance monitoring programs,” the site reads. “They are an important tool for officially assessing compliance with environmental regulations and requirements.”

EPA spokesman John Konkus said in an email Friday that “approximately half” of the decline in inspections is attributable to states being given primary enforcement responsibility to inspect drinking water standards at underground injection wells. “The EPA is also improving its enforcement targeting efforts,” Konkus said, “so we are more successful at finding more violations using fewer inspections.”

EPA said it had compelled companies to invest $4 billion to control pollution and comply with the law during fiscal year 2018 — an amount that also was the lowest in a decade, according to the agency’s figures. Officials also said they had reduced lead exposure through 140 enforcement actions against renovation contractors, landlords, property managers, Realtors and others.

But several experts said the agency’s own numbers showed how the administration had scaled back its efforts to identify and penalize those violating the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Matthew Thurlow, a partner at Baker Hostetler who litigated environmental enforcement cases at the Justice Department between 2008 and 2011, said that the dramatic decline means that some wrongdoing may go unnoticed.

“You have to have inspections and evaluations in order to support civil enforcement,” he said. “Since you’re doing fewer inspections and evaluations, there are less violations that you’re finding, and less cases being brought.”

“There’s a long-term trend here,” Thurlow said, noting that the push to have companies audit their own operations began under the Obama administration. “The Trump administration is obviously accelerating things and deferring to the states. There’s more self-auditing and self-reporting going on than ever before.”

The new figures, which were withheld during the partial government shutdown last month, also confirm The Post’s earlier analysis that civil penalties dropped to the lowest average level since 1994. EPA reported Friday that it levied $69 million in civil penalties last fiscal year, compared with an average of more than $500 million a year when adjusted for inflation. Even when excluding massive settlements in recent years related to the BP oil spill and a Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, the Trump administration’s 2018 total last year marks a steep drop from the agency’s annual average.

Some of the figures cited in EPA’s official news release represent stark declines from previous years. Officials said that the agency’s work led to criminal charges against 105 defendants during fiscal year 2018, and that its cases yielded sentences totaling 73 years in prison. But the sentencing total represents a roughly 50 percent drop from 2017, and the total number of criminal defendants charged also declined compared to the previous year.

During his confirmation hearing last month, EPA acting administrator Andrew Wheeler told lawmakers that there had been “a lot of misleading information” suggesting that the agency had gone easier on polluters under Trump. He cited recent reports from environmental and governance groups that said the EPA’s enforcement had sagged.

Wheeler said the EPA had opened more criminal enforcement cases during 2018 than the year before, reversing a downward trajectory. He said enforcement actions last year resulted in removing “809 million pounds of pollution and waste” from the environment. And he said the agency had worked with companies to ensure they comply with federal rules, rather than levying charges against them or imposing fines.

But he avoided detailing the sharp drop in civil fines during the 2018 fiscal year. And he did not mention that while the number of criminal cases the agency opened had ticked up slightly, both the number of defendants charged with crimes and the length of criminal sentences fell during 2018.

The agency said it had secured commitments to reduce, treat or eliminate 268 million pounds of air, water and toxic pollution last fiscal year. But it said the estimated environmental benefits of those commitments was worth $268 million, roughly one-fifth of what EPA secured in 2013.

Konkus said the notion that the EPA under President Trump is going easy on polluters isn’t accurate.

“It is essential that the media report enforcement accomplishments in a way that acknowledges the complexity of why there are changes year over year,” he said. “A simplistic and incorrect narrative that this administration [is] ‘soft’ on enforcement actually emboldens non-compliance. As many have already discovered and many others will, this administration is absolutely committed to the rule of law and effective law enforcement.”

Cynthia Giles, who served as EPA’s top enforcement official during both of Obama’s terms, said in an email that the numbers show the extent to which the administration has scaled back its efforts to police environmental wrongdoing.

“EPA is trying to convince media and the public that EPA is still doing its job on enforcement, despite all of the reports showing that isn’t the case,” she said. “Not only are the Trump EPA’s enforcement numbers at historic lows, they are on track to get worse."