Adjusting for inflation, the budget for the EPA’s main enforcement and compliance programs hit an 11-year low in fiscal 2022, sinking below levels set during the Trump era, according to a new independent analysis.
Those cuts are a key reason the Environmental Protection Agency’s performance in cracking down on violators is at its weakest in decades across various measures, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, an environmental watchdog group.
“You’ve heard a lot that they’re working on enforcement, they’re going to beef up enforcement, they’re going to return the EPA to becoming a really effective overseer of polluters,” said Christopher Sellers, an environmental history professor at Stony Brook University and one of the report’s co-authors. “That’s not what the numbers say.”
In fiscal 2022, civil case initiations were at their third-lowest level since 1982 and civil case conclusions were the second lowest on record, the report found.
The EPA enforcement office’s staffing was also down 0.6% since the Biden administration began in early 2020, EDGI said, drawing on data gleaned from a Freedom of Information Act request.
David Uhlmann, the Biden administration’s pick to lead EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, confirmed recently that a lack of money has hit the department hard.
“A strong enforcement and compliance program that is staffed and equipped to tackle 21st century environmental problems requires far more resources than EPA has had recently,” Uhlmann said Feb. 16 at an American Legal Institute conference.
He also said the EPA’s enforcement program has taken “a bigger hit than any other segment of the agency,” having lost nearly 30% of its workforce since 2011.
EPA enforcement took a sharp dip under President Donald Trump, reaching record lows in inspections, civil cases concluded, and civil cases referred for prosecution, according to the Environmental Integrity Project.
The EPA’s enforcement performance has started to recover in some areas, the EDGI report found.
For example, the agency’s criminal fines in fiscal 2022 were 84% of its historical average, and the number of inspections has crept back up to its historic range between 1994 and 2016.
But even those numbers “stand out not because they are so historically high but because they are not exceptionally low,” the report concluded.
The EPA’s growing reliance on off-site monitoring, which accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, may have also distorted the bounceback in inspections. Off-site monitoring involves data collection and oversight, whereas on-site monitoring means visits to facilities to do things like interview people, observe practices, and collect samples.
An influx of $100 million in new funding from the fiscal 2023 omnibus spending bill and the climate law is already enabling the EPA to start hiring new inspectors and attorneys, Uhlmann said.
“Although it may take time to see results from this rebuilding effort, EPA expects to make progress toward achieving its past levels of enforcement,” he said.
Sellers praised the legally binding order the EPA issued against Norfolk Southern Corp. on Tuesday, which requires the company to pay for cleanup costs resulting from its train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“It’s a good sign that they’re becoming more aggressive in cases like this, high-profile cases,” he said. “The problem, though, is all the lower profile cases. That’s where the declining numbers really are borne out by EPA’s own data. The big question is whether they can get all the cases that don’t get media coverage.”
The EDGI report compared fiscal 2022 performance against averages, medians, and ranges predating the Trump era.
To contact the reporter on this story:
To contact the editor responsible for this story: