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EPA Enforcement Dropping Sharply, Agency Watchdog Says (1)

April 1, 2020, 4:25 PMUpdated: April 1, 2020, 4:43 PM

The EPA’s enforcement and compliance monitoring activities have tailed off sharply over the last decade, the agency’s internal watchdog said in a new report.

The findings are broadly consistent with patterns reported elsewhere, including by the Environmental Protection Agency itself in February.

In fiscal 2018, the EPA conducted 33% fewer inspections than in fiscal 2007, according to the Office of Inspector General in a report dated March 31 but made public Wednesday.

The number of enforcement actions initiated by the EPA fell by 52% over the same period, and the number of actions completed dropped by 51%, the OIG said.

Moreover, the number of enforcement actions with penalties dropped by 53% from fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2018. During that period, the EPA’s penalty total in fiscal 2018 was the lowest, at $69 million. It peaked in fiscal 2016 at $6.1 billion.

Some of the dropoffs could be chalked up to fewer resources. Funding for the EPA’s enforcement program and the number of enforcement staff dipped by 18% and 21% respectively between fiscal 2006 and fiscal 2018, according to OIG.

EPA Responds

In a written response to the inspector general’s office, agency enforcement chief Susan Parker Bodine said the report “does not fully reflect enforcement trends.”

Because states take the lead role in enforcement, “the EPA will continue to focus where it can provide the most value,” acting as a backstop when a state or tribe doesn’t take action, Bodine wrote.

She further noted that voluntary, self-disclosed violations rose by some 20% in fiscal 2019 over fiscal 2018. Fiscal 2019 also saw a 33% increase in the number of criminal cases, according to Bodine. The number of criminal defendants charged rose by 28% during the same period, she said.

Further, $472 million was assessed in combined civil penalties and criminal fines in fiscal 2019, which Bodine said was the highest total in all but four of the past 10 years.

An EPA spokeswoman called the OIG’s report a “bean-counting exercise,” and said it ignores recent technological advances in compliance monitoring.

Most of the decline in the number of enforcement actions also happened “well before 2017,” when the Trump administration took control, the spokeswoman said.

Moreover, the OIG’s findings ignore recent reversals in enforcement by failing to include data EPA presented in a report earlier this year, she said.

The OIG made no recommendations in its report.

The report also found that the number of supplemental environmental projects fell by 48% over the study period.

In March, the Justice Department ended the practice, which lets companies make amends for pollution-related violations by performing environmentally beneficial projects.

((Updates with comments from the EPA.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Renee Schoof at rschoof@bloombergenvironment.com