THE LIGHTBULB

The number of investigators at the Environmental Protection Agency looking into the most serious potential violators of the nation's anti-pollution laws has fallen by a tenth since President Trump's election.

According to data released Thursday by the environmental advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the number of special agents at the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) fell from 157 in September 2016, shortly before Trump's election, to 140 in April of this year.

The division's agents are responsible for investigating suspected criminal violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other environmental statues that can often result in prison time for those convicted.

As the CID's staffing levels have ticked down, so has the number of criminal referrals to the Justice Department, which prosecutes criminal environmental enforcement cases. The EPA marked a nearly three-decade low in criminal referrals to prosecutors during fiscal 2017 with only 206 criminal cases making their way to the Justice Department, compared to the 228 referred during the previous 12-month period when Barack Obama was president. The EPA is on pace for that figure to drop even lower in 2018.

But those enforcement figures have been on the decline for years even under during the last administration as the EPA's budget often ended up constrained after negotiations between the Obama White House and the GOP-led Congress. During his presidency, the total number of EPA's criminal referrals peaked at 413 between October 2010 and September 2011, going down every year since then. 

“This trend started under Obama but they are extending it,” said Jeff Ruch, president of PEER. The group obtained the figures through requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Noting Administrator Scott Pruitt's motto of reining in federal overreach and getting the EPA “back to basics,” Ruch added: “In our view you can't get any more basic than anti-pollution enforcement.”

While staffing levels across the agency have fallen under Pruitt, the EPA said that the decline in enforcers is not tied to any new Trump administration policy.

“Administrator Pruitt is committed to enforcing the law and working with our law enforcement partners and the Department of Justice to punish criminals,” EPA spokeswoman Molly Block said. “The change in the number of criminal enforcement agents has occurred over a number of years, and does not reflect any reduction in this Administration’s commitment to enforce the law against wrongdoers.”

Pruitt inherited an agency with a criminal investigative unit operating with staffing levels below the legal limit. The 1990 Pollution Prosecution Act requires the EPA to employ 200 or more special agents. The last time the agency met that mandated threshold was in 2003, according to PEER. 

And other parts of the federal government tasking with protecting the environment, such as the Interior Department, have faced cutbacks in enforcement as well, according to Justin Pidot, a University of Denver law professor and former deputy solicitor for land resources at the Interior Department under Obama.

“In general, the enforcement components of many agencies have been squeezed over time,” Pidot said. “Congress loves to tell agencies what to do but not cough up the dough.”

But one policy unique to Pruitt — the controversial round-the-clock personal security requirements — prompted officials last year to siphon special agents from Boston, Denver and other regional offices to rotate in for two-week stints helping guard him. While the EPA said Pruitt faced more threats than previous administrators, the practice of reassigning investigators rankled many in and outside the EPA.

And in recent months, one of Pruitt's deputies, Susan Bodine, has instituted a new guideline that says she will personally review which potential civil enforcement actions — one step below criminal — are referred to the Justice Department, a move some former officials describe as providing Trump appointees the chance to stifle enforcement.

The EPA said it is in the process of hiring additional criminal investigators.

“Levels of CID agents have always been an issue in all Administrations,” Richard Alonso, a former high-ranking air enforcement official at the EPA who is now a partner at the law firm Sidley Austin, said in an email. “While the numbers of case may have drop, the federal cases are much more significant,” he added.

One of those major cases in recent years was the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the EPA alleged that the German automaker intentionally programmed diesel engines to turn on controls for the release of nitrogen oxides only when being tested in a laboratory.

POWER PLAYS

— Pruitt watch: Just last week, Sen. James M. Inhofe, a fellow Oklahoman, signaled that Pruitt may be on thin ice. But the key Republican senator invited a group of reporters to his office Wednesday morning to explain he was “a little embarrassed” that he started to doubt Pruitt. “I was becoming skeptical. I was getting concerned,” he told the reporters. But after an in-person meeting with Pruitt on Tuesday, Inhofe’s doubts had been assuaged and he had “adopted Pruitt’s approach of blaming his ethics quandaries on disgruntled former employees, a bloated government bureaucracy, unfair media coverage and political opponents such as liberal activist Tom Steyer and ‘left-wing environmentalists’ who oppose Trump administration policies," according to The Post’s Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin.

So is Pruitt's job safe? "I don’t have any idea if it is or not," Inhofe said. "We don’t have the most predictable president in the history of America.”

On the other side of the aisle: Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) criticized Republicans for delaying a hearing with Pruitt. After Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, announced he scheduled a hearing with Pruitt related to his conduct for August, Carper said the oversight hearing is “long overdue," per ABC News. Barrasso said the timing was connected to the EPA’s inspector general investigations, which are expected to be completed late this summer.

— Pruitt's security spending up: Under Pruitt, the EPA has now spent more than $4.6 million of taxpayer money on his security detail, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Intercept. The records detail expenditures totaling $288,610 on security-related items, including three expense line items in April for $2,749.62 on “tactical pants” and “tactical polos."

— A Zinke-linked deal in Whitefish: A nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen is asking the Interior Department’s ethics officer to investigate Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s connection to a real estate deal with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton, Politico reports. The request follows a report from the publication this week that a foundation Zinke established and that is now led by his wife is providing assistance with the commercial development near Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont.

— Steel yourself for tariffs: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced Wednesday the administration had completed a first review of the more than 20,000 requests submitted for exemptions from steel and aluminum tariffs. He said the administration granted exclusions for 42 types of imports and denied 56, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Mr. Ross suggested that a much larger number of exclusions would be approved shortly,” per the report. 

Ross’s remarks came during his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday. During the hearing, he also defended the tariffs amid bipartisan criticism from senators. “Know that you are taxing American families, you are putting American jobs at risk, and you are destroying markets — both foreign and domestic — for American businesses of all types, sorts and sizes,” committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said, The Post’s Erica Werner reports. Ross responded that “actions taken by the president are necessary to revive America’s essential steel and aluminum industries” and “allowing imports to continue unchecked threatens to impair our national security.”

Meanwhile: A political network backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, will launch an ad campaign against Trump’s tariffs on imports, Bloomberg News reports. “To keep growing, we must keep trading,” says a TV advertisement that will launch next week as part of the campaign being sponsored by the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce. “Tariffs are not the answer.”

— Water contamination report released: The Trump administration Wednesday released a much-anticipated report on water contamination from polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) following after a White House aide said the study would be a “public relations nightmare.” “As expected, the report by the Department of Health and Human Services shows that toxic nonstick chemicals that have leaked into communities’ drinking water supplies endanger human health at levels the EPA had previously deemed safe,” Politico reports.

Energy and Environment
Obama's national ocean policy, created during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, called on the federal government to work with states and local governments to enhance and protect oceans.
Darryl Fears
THERMOMETER

— “A tidal wave of plastic trash": A massive wave of garbage could flood the world in the next decade, a new study from researchers at the University of Georgia is warning. Waste management operations in the United States are struggling to process high volumes of paper and plastic that they can no longer send to China after the country stopped allowing imports of half of the world’s trash. “If Europe and the rest of the world struggle like the United States… an estimated 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will pile up by 2030,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. “Based on the amount of domestic scrap exported to China, the researchers estimate that the United States will have to contend with 37 million metric tons of extra waste, an amount it’s not prepared to handle.”

And the changes will affect recycling too. As recycling programs shift or disappear to grant relief to the struggling waste systems, residents may face new challenges about what can or cannot be recycled.

— “There was no smoking gun:” Some of the 13 bald eagles that were found dead on a Maryland farm more than two years ago were killed after ingesting a highly toxic pesticide, carbofuran, according to a federal report. The report, obtained by the Annapolis radio station WNAV and shared with The Post, concludes the birds were poisoned, though it remains unclear who poisoned them. It also “answers one big question in a mysterious wildlife crime that angered conservation organizations and stumped U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigators, who were involved because the bald eagle is a federally protected species,” The Post’s Karin Brulliard and Dana Hedgpeth report. Today, the pesticide is off the market and the bald eagle is no longer endangered.

In other eagle news: Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) introduced a resolution on Wednesday to designate June 20, 2018, “American Eagle Day.”

OIL CHECK

— Oil watch: Oman’s oil minister Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Rumhy predicted Iran will agree to increase the production of oil during the much-anticipated Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting on Friday, Reuters reports. An Iranian official is quoted in Iran’s Seda weekly suggesting it will accept the oil output boost on a condition. “The condition means no other country has the right to compensate for another country’s oil production decrease. For example, Saudi Arabia should not compensate for Venezuela’s oil production drop,” a source close to the Iranian delegation reportedly said, per Reuters.

OPEC’s increased power: Oil producers including Canada, Brazil and nations along the North Sea don’t have the capacity to boost their oil production, a constraint that is boosting OPEC's influence. “The impact on the oil price of the decision they make is amplified by the fact that almost no other producer is in a position to follow suit,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Even in the U.S., pipeline bottlenecks and pressure from investors are set to cap production.”

From WSJ reporter Georgi Kantchev:

— The road ahead for Tesla: The electric carmaker has sued a former employee, alleging that he hacked the company’s trade secrets and sent data to third parties. In a lawsuit filed in Nevada on Wednesday, Tesla claims Martin Tripp “who formerly worked at the Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, had admitted to writing software that hacked the carmaker’s manufacturing operating system, transferring several gigabytes of its data to third parties and making false claims to the media,” Reuters reports. Chief executive Elon Musk detailed his charges about the unnamed Tesla employee, who he said conducted “extensive and damaging sabotage,” in an email to employees this week.

Not so fast, says the employee: Tripp told The Post he is a whistleblower who chose to speak out because of “some really scary things” happening within the company, The Post’s Drew Harwell reports. “Speaking Wednesday night to The Post, Tripp confirmed that he provided information to Business Insider for a story the news website did earlier this month about the company's raw-material waste,” Harwell writes. “But Tripp, 40, said he did so because he was alarmed by what he learned while an employee, including what he claimed were hundreds of Model 3s that had punctured batteries. Tesla representatives have said they would not ship cars that have safety concerns.” Tesla has denied the former employee’s claims of being a whistleblower.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on “State Perspectives on Regulating Background Ozone."
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting.
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds a public meeting.
  • The Wilson Center holds a briefing on “Energy Innovation in Remote Arctic Communities,"
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a discussion with Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good.

Coming Up

  • Brookings Institution holds an event on “Blending climate finance for low-carbon infrastructure” on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

— An in-studio tornado: The Weather Channel debuted a new technology on Wednesday to simulate a tornado in the studio to walk viewers through safety and shelter protocol.