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EPA brings in billions in enforcement fines — but most stem from Obama era

Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, accompanied by then-deputy attorney general Sally Yates, announced a settlement with Volkswagen in 2016. The car company agreed to pay a $2.8 billion criminal fine to settle allegations that it used illegal software to cheat emissions tests. It also agreed to pay $1.45 billion in civil penalties. (J. David Ake/AP)

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday released annual data about how it is enforcing the nation’s environmental laws, saying it had racked up nearly $5 billion in criminal fines and civil penalties, as well as significant commitments from companies to clean up contaminated sites around the country.

Trump administration critics were quick to point out that many of the actions highlighted in the report  — which include cases through the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — were initiated under the Obama administration. That leaves ongoing questions about how aggressively the EPA under Administrator Scott Pruitt will prosecute polluters, they say.

“We are highlighting accomplishments and honoring employees for all the great work they’ve done,” said Susan Bodine, the agency’s top enforcement official, who was confirmed by the Senate in December. A strong enforcement program “is essential,” she added, and in line with Pruitt’s promises to hold polluters accountable.

Thursday’s report shows the agency brought in nearly $3 billion in criminal fines and restitution, largely resulting from a landmark settlement with Volkswagen over its use of illegal software to cheat emissions tests. The company also agreed to pay $1.45 billion in civil penalties, contributing to what the EPA called its most significant year for such penalties since BP in 2010 paid nearly $6 billion in the wake of a deadly oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In addition, Bodine noted, private firms committed more than $1.2 billion toward cleaning up contaminated sites around the country during the past fiscal year. And the agency saw an increase in the years of incarceration resulting from its criminal actions.

Cynthia Giles, a top EPA enforcement official during the Obama administration, said the latest report says more about the past administration than it does the current one.

“Nearly all of the large cases included in the EPA’s annual enforcement report were essentially over before the new administration arrived,” Giles said in an email, noting that there was little Pruitt could have done to alter them. “In no sense do these cases reflect the intentions or actions of the new administration.”

Including settlements made in the waning months of the Obama administration was appropriate because they came during fiscal 2017, Giles said. “But what is not fair, and would be entirely misleading, is claiming that these numbers show that Administrator Pruitt is enforcing the law.”

Bodine acknowledged that many of the criminal filings, fines and other enforcement actions took root before the Trump administration.

“Enforcement cases take a long time to develop and come to fruition,” she said, pointing to the Volkswagen case as an example. While its initial settlement was finalized before President Trump took office in January 2017, “the folks working on that are still working on that and other good cases as well.”

But it remains to be seen whether Pruitt intends to follow through on such promises. An analysis by the New York Times late last year concluded that the EPA under Pruitt has initiated about one-third fewer civil enforcement cases than the number under President Barack Obama’s first EPA director and about a quarter fewer than during the early days of President George W. Bush’s administration.

The article highlighted how some regional EPA officials feel hamstrung because they no longer have the authority to order certain air- and water-pollution sampling tests, known as requests for information, without receiving permission from headquarters in Washington.

Bodine said the paper’s analysis did not account for an overall trend during the past decade of the EPA initiating fewer enforcement cases. “We are targeting the most egregious cases. We’re being strategic about our criminal enforcement actions,” she said. “So while cases have gone down, the significance of the cases . . . has gone up.”

Requests for information have routinely been approved, she added.

Separately, the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit advocacy group, said its analysis of the data Thursday showed that the Trump administration has filed just 33 civil cases during its first 9 months and collected $14 million in federal penalties. That amounts to about half of the average of 62 cases filed during the first nine months of the Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton administrations, the group said.

“Since President Trump took office, the long arm of the law has gotten shorter, at least when it comes to cracking down on illegal pollution,” Eric Schaeffer, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

The Trump administration has proposed sharp cuts to the agency’s enforcement apparatus — $129 million below 2017 levels — even though such drastic cuts are unlikely to be part of any budget deal on Capitol Hill. Even so, the enforcement office has been hit by numerous departures, including longtime career staffers who accepted buyouts in the summer. The EPA did not provide precise numbers on current staffing Thursday.

The administration has said it intends to delegate more enforcement responsibilities to individual states and then lend a hand wherever necessary — a concept known as “cooperative federalism” that Pruitt has championed. But environmental advocates have warned that many states have woefully few resources to actually track down and prosecute polluters and that the agency’s shift amounts to a retreat.

Bodine said states already do the vast number of inspections and enforcement actions, with the EPA regularly working with individual states to ensure companies comply with environmental laws. When that happens successfully, it doesn’t always end up as a formal case that gets counted in the annual tally, she said.

“The characterization that EPA is walking away . . . and turning everything over to the states, that isn’t true,” she said. “The philosophy is that states are partners, and we want to work cooperatively with them.”

Yet she added, “We still need to make sure the federal environmental statutes are complied with. So if a state isn’t going to take an action, we will.”

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