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Thursday, 31 August 2017 06:18

Criminal Pollution Cases Are Dwindling at the EPA

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epa33Criminal prosecution of corporate pollution is decreasing. (Photo: mccready)

It has been clear since his days as Oklahoma attorney general -- when he filed lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- that current EPA Director Scott Pruitt values corporate interests over the protection of the environment. He clearly has continued to do so in his current role. One could argue that Pruitt never met a land, water or air pollution regulation that he liked.

Given that context, a recent Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) analysis confirmed that Pruitt is slowing down the agency's process of holding corporations and individuals responsible for criminal pollution. According to a PEER news release:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fewer than half of the criminal special agents on the job than it had a dozen years ago, according to EPA statistics released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These thinning ranks of white collar investigators are opening a shrinking number of anti-pollution cases and obtaining fewer convictions.

EPA figures obtained by PEER through the Freedom of Information Act indicate that –

• The number of special agents inside the EPA Criminal Investigation Division (CID) has dropped by more than half since 2003, with a current total of only 147 agents, well below the minimum of 200 agents required by the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990;

• New criminal cases opened by CID have plummeted, falling by nearly two-thirds just since 2012. The current fiscal year is on pace to open just 120 new cases, a modern low; and

• Successful criminal anti-pollution prosecutions are also slumping, down to little more than half of convictions won in 2014.

The Government Executive website noted in an August 24 article,

EPA is in the process of downsizing its workforce. The agency plans to spend $12 million by the end of September to encourage employees to leave through early retirement and buyout offers, and Congress is pushing funding for more separation incentives in fiscal 2018. The Trump administration is also seeking to slash the number of regulations with which private companies must comply, requiring agencies to eliminate or streamline two rules for every new one they introduce and sending task forces across government to identify those no longer necessary.

An earlier July article in Government Executive reported that many EPA employees are demoralized and ready to accept the early retirement and buyout offers:

Employees are eager to accept separation incentives at the Environmental Protection Agency, according to one of the labor leaders at the agency, who said many in the workforce have become disillusioned with their employer due to a steady reduction in resources.

A House appropriations bill would slash EPA funding by $528 million in fiscal 2018, a 6.5 percent reduction. The proposal pales in comparison to the $2.5 billion, 31 percent cut Trump put forward in his budget blueprint. Still, labor and environmental groups said Monday the tamer reductions would cripple the agency, given the larger context in which they would be implemented. Lawmakers have consistently slashed EPA’s budget since 2010, and if the House cuts go into effect the agency will have seen its funding reduced by 27 percent over the eight-year period....

“Some people are fed up,” said Mike Mikulka, president of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents EPA workers in Chicago. “Are people going to take this? Yes, because federal employees have been demonized by Congress and interest groups and people are tired of it. You can only be beat around the head and the shoulders for so long before you say enough is enough.”

Meanwhile, on August 28, NewsOK reported that Pruitt's frequent travel to Oklahoma (to return to his home) is being investigated by the EPA inspector general:

The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general will investigate Administrator Scott Pruitt's recent taxpayer-funded travels to Oklahoma.

"This assignment is being initiated based on congressional requests and a hotline complaint, all of which expressed concerns about Administrator Pruitt's travel — primarily his frequent travel to and from his home state of Oklahoma at taxpayer expense," the inspector general's office wrote in a letter to Pruitt and other EPA leaders Monday.

Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who maintains a home in Tulsa, has been criticized for his travel by the Environmental Integrity Project [EIP], a group of former EPA officials.

“We are glad that the EPA Office of Inspector General is looking into this issue, to determine whether taxpayer funds were spent appropriately,” said Sylvia Lam, an attorney for the EIP.

According to NewsOK, the Environmental Integrity Project "alleges Pruitt spent 43 out of 92 days from March to May in Oklahoma or traveling between Washington and Oklahoma." The article adds that Pruitt may be using this travel to position himself to run for the Sooner State's governor or senator. If that's the case, the public is paying for his pre-electioneering while he clamps down on EPA criminal pollution enforcement.

To make matters worse, PEER just announced that Sally Bodine -- a protégé of both Pruitt and Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (a notorious climate change denier) -- will temporarily join the agency in a senior position even though she has not been confirmed by the Senate:

The Trump nominee to oversee enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will begin work without waiting for confirmation by the U.S. Senate, according to an agency email posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The nomination of Susan Bodine to lead EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance has drawn significant opposition and remains pending on the Senate floor. In an August 29th email, EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson announced that Susan Bodine “will join the Agency on Sept. 5 as special counsel to the administrator on enforcement.” Jackson makes clear Bodine will not wait for the required Senate approval.

Of course, in the upside-down world of the Trump EPA, the Office of Enforcement and Compliance appears to concern itself with just the opposite: creating more opportunities for corporate non-compliance and reduced enforcement of environmental regulations.