Is EPA Gutting Its Enforcement Effort?

The Bush administration has been reducing key federal enforcement activities by more than 200 positions below the fiscal year 2001 level, a cut of 13 percent, according to a letter sent to the House Appropriations Committee by a coalition of environmental groups.

The letter urged Congress to support an amendment offered by Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-NY, restoring $20 million to EPA's enforcement effort. So far the Senate has voted in favor of giving EPA the extra money it apparently does not want, while the full House has not yet acted on the proposal.

The alleged change in EPA enforcement means that according to documents presented by EPA to Congress and cited by environmentalists:

  • Pounds of pollutants required to be reduced through enforcement actions settled will drop from 660 million in 2001 to 300 million in 2003;
  • EPA inspections will be cut from 17,812 last year to 14,000 next year;
  • Facilities voluntarily self-disclosing and correcting violations will fall from 1754 in 2001 to only 500 in 2003;
  • Civil investigations will be reduced from 368 in 2001 to 180 in 2003.

The estimates have been made public because as part of the justification process for appropriations, EPA is required to show Congress the impacts that would result from changes in its enforcement policy.

"I think what EPA is trying to do is get away from bean counting," said Jeff Marks, director of air quality at the National Association of Manufacturing (NAM). Traditionally, environmental groups measure enforcement success by the number of inspections and enforcement actions brought, according to Marks.

"The Bush administration is trying to move away from that and toward performance measures," he explained. "They want to measure whether the air and water are actually cleaner and this is what the regulated community has pushed for over the years."

For example, according to a recent EPA report on air quality, from 1970 through 2001 aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants tracked nationally have been cut 25 percent. There are not yet performance measures reflecting environmental progress, or the lack of it, under the Bush administration.

But EPA, apparently still willing to engage in "bean counting," contends it has vigorously enforced environmental laws and dramatically increased the penalties imposed upon violators. EPA says:

  • It forced violators to spend nearly twice as much installing new pollution controls and conducting cleanups, from $2.6 billion in 2000 to $4.4 billion in 2001;
  • Civil judicial penalties assessed against environmental violators are up from $55 million in 2000 to $102 million in 2001;
  • Total years of criminal sentences for environmental violations rose from 146 years in 2000 to 256 years in 2001 criminal fines fell, but this is due to strategy of jailing criminals rather than fining them.

Some additional evidence that EPA enforcement has not changed very much comes from Marks, who was asked if NAM members have noticed a "kinder, gentler EPA."

"I think the agency wants to move toward the carrot of incentives and away from the stick of enforcement," he replied. "Whether it actually has happened is up for debate."

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