The Environmental Protection Agency’s lethargic response to the Flint water crisis makes the agency look like an accomplice after a crime – the poisoning of the city’s water system and assaulting its population.
But was EPA’s dawdling in largely poor and black Flint an aberration or part of a pattern of lax oversight and enforcement?
For critic Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the answer is clearer than Flint’s water: With the exception of Obama administration initiatives on greenhouse gases, EPA “has steadily withdrawn from combating conventional pollution,” continuing the pattern under former president George W. Bush.
At the same time, EPA cites projects that show, in the words of Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, “we are implementing America’s environmental laws and delivering on EPA’s mission.”
Ruch has evidence to back up his claim. The data support him when he says “enforcement actions of all types have fallen.”
Statistics in an Environment & Energy Publishing report, drawn from EPA data, tell the tale: the 213 criminal cases EPA opened in 2015 were 87 fewer than two years before and down a fifth from 2014. The number of defendants charged also fell, but slightly. In 2013 the number of inspections and evaluations totaled about 18,000. That dropped to 15,400 in 2015.
The agency is charged with overseeing state anti-pollution programs like Michigan’s and under former president Bill Clinton “EPA often directly intervened (or threatened to) in cases where state agencies had dropped the ball,” Ruch added in an email. “We have not heard of any such action under Obama…In area after area, we see EPA retreating.”
For Henry Henderson, Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, EPA repeatedly demonstrates a “lack of urgency to enforce the law, holding back in situations where it is their responsibility to act and only responding when there is citizen action to force their hand.”
Part of EPA’s problem is resources — money and people.
Cutting staff from 18,000 in 1999 to 15,000 undercuts the agency’s performance, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
“What most people don’t understand is that nearly half of EPA’s budget goes to states, tribal authorities, and municipalities, and of the remaining half, almost half of that goes to contractors,” said a statement from John J. O’Grady, president of AFGE Local 704, which represents employees in the EPA region that covers Flint.
“EPA’s budget peaked in 2010 at $10.3 billion and is now at $8.1 billion for 2016,” he said. “How can the agency do more with less, particularly at a time when state environmental agencies are experiencing budget shortfalls? U.S. EPA does not have the sufficient capacity to assist. So, issues such as the one which occurred in Flint, Mich. happen due, in part, to minimal federal oversight and enforcement.”
Despite the budget cuts, EPA says its enforcement actions resulted in record-setting Superfund, Clean Air Act and hazardous waste settlements. Companies were required to invest more than $7 billion to clean up contamination and control pollution. The agency boasts of actions in 2015 that it says cut 430 million pounds of air pollutants and provided $39 million for “projects that provide direct benefits to communities harmed by pollution.”
And although environmental criminal cases are down, EPA notes the $4 billion its criminal program won through court ordered projects last year, the $200 million in fines and restitution, and the total of 129 years of incarceration for environmental criminals.
“The large cases we tackled in 2015 will drive compliance across industries, and protect public health in communities for years to come,” said EPA’s Giles.
Bob Perciasepe, EPA’s deputy administrator from 2009 to 2014, cautions against drawing sweeping conclusions about EPA from individual cases, like Flint. “Flint is not a normal occurrence,” he said.
Look at environmental issues broadly over the agency’s 46-year history, Perciasepe suggested. “Has pollution gone up? It has not.”
EPA, he added, has been “one of the greatest bargains the American public has paid for.”
For Earth Day last year, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy reported on the agency’s progress on four big pollution problems – acid rain, leaded gasoline, pesticide DDT and air pollution.
“Our track record proves that when EPA leads the way,” she said, “there’s no environmental challenge our nation can’t meet.”
But does it lead often and aggressively enough?