The Trump administration has collected 60 percent less from civil penalties for environmental wrongdoing than the administrations of presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did on average in their first six months in office.
That’s according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group founded 15 years ago by former enforcement attorneys at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The administration has lodged 26 cases for violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other environmental laws (not including Superfund sites) and it collected $12 million in penalties from companies, the group said. Clinton, Bush and Obama respectively lodged 45, 31, and 34 cases and collected $25 million, $30 million and $36 million in penalties.
The Environmental Integrity Project said that the figures showed that the Trump administration is “off to a very slow start” when it comes to enforcing environmental law. It said that the cases this year “are smaller, requiring much less spending on cleanup, and resulting in fewer measurable reductions in pollutants that end up in our air or water.”
The Trump administration also lags behind the three previous presidential administrations in the amount of injunctive relief and the amount of air pollution reductions.
At the same time, the group warned that a six-month period does not provide enough data for definitive conclusions, and cases and settlements are often the result of years of efforts. For example, the largest civil penalty imposed by the Obama administration in its first six months was a $12 million fine imposed on BP, whose large Texas City refinery suffered fires and explosions that killed 15 people and injured more than 170 others in 2005.
Mark Abueg, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said the administration had launched major legal action against polluters and obtained a $40 million criminal penalty in a vessel pollution case. “The Department continues to vigorously enforce environmental laws to better protect the American people,” he said.
The largest civil penalty imposed so far by the Trump administration came on May 17, when the EPA and the state of Texas imposed a $2.5 million penalty on the owner of Vopak Terminals North America Inc. for air pollution violations at its terminal along the Houston Ship Channel, the EIP said. The Dutch company’s terminal stores biofuels, chemicals, petroleum products, base oils and lubricants, consisting of 243 tanks with a collective capacity of over 7 million barrels, the EPA said on its website.
It added that Vopak’s violations were detected in 2012, 2014 and 2015 involving open tanks, leaking tanks and inefficient flares that contributed to releases of volatile organic compounds.
“The company’s Deer Park facility failed to comply with Clean Air Act requirements to properly manage equipment, which resulted in excess emissions of benzene (a carcinogen) and volatile organic compounds,” the EIP said. “These compounds contribute to smog and causes asthma attacks and eye, nose and throat irritation, as well as headaches, nausea and damage to liver, kidney and the central nervous system.”
The biggest penalty imposed during the first six months of George W. Bush’s administration was a $9.5 million fine on oil refiners Motiva, Equilon and Shell. The Clinton administration imposed a $11.1 million fine on Louisiana Pacific and Kirby Forest Industries for air pollution violations at wood product plants.
The EIP relied on consent decrees, news releases by the Justice Department and the Federal Register to compile its figures.