Among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed during the record-setting partial government shutdown were those responsible for tracking pollution, safety hazards and other threats to the American people’s health, safety and welfare.
The Environmental Protection Agency was missing oversight of superfund site clean-ups, along with inspections at thousands of factories, recycling plants, power plants and many other facilities.
At the Interior Department, half the staff of its Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement were sent home — and these are the folks responsible for preventing offshore drilling disasters. At the same time, Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management brought back furloughed employees early to plan for an offshore oil lease sale in March — all while EPA was not enforcing the National Environmental Protection Act that reviews those activities.
Now that they are back on the job, at least for the next two weeks, the beleaguered federal workforce is facing a pretty stressful work-overload — and at the nation’s expense.
All this while EPA has just hit a 30-year low in the number of pollution cases it referred for criminal prosecution to the Department of Justice.
In addition to rolling back regulations and rewriting rules to favor polluting businesses, last year the 166 cases referred by EPA was the lowest number since 1988 when Ronald Reagan tried to dismantle the scandal-ridden agency with Anne Gorsuch at the head.
In 1990, Congress directed EPA, through the Pollution Prosecution Act, to employ 200 or more special enforcement agents. Today it has 140.
Criminal violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other environmental statues used to result in prison time for those convicted — but not anymore. In 1998, EPA prosecuted 592 criminal polluters. Pursuit of environmental criminals has been going down steadily ever since.
And settlements made with polluters plunged to an abnormally low point in 2017 with only $1.6 billion collected in penalties, down from $5.7 billion the previous year.
While the number of new civil and criminal cases, defendants charged, and federal inspections and evaluations have all dropped to their lowest levels in at least a decade, decisions on prosecution referrals are also being taken away from those closest to the crimes in EPA’s regional offices, and instead centralized at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. This rearrangement allows political appointees from the oil, gas, coal and chemical industries to ignore criminal referrals from the field.
To make matters worse, EPA staff have been told by managers to step back from enforcement and let the states take over, essentially giving states veto power over some cases and injecting local politics into federal prosecution decisions.
As the Trump administration’s plan to cripple EPA proceeds unimpeded, polluters are being let off the hook. With fewer prosecutions, the administration is sending a clear and direct signal to industry that they don’t need to comply with the law because they won’t be prosecuted. This, in turn, provides an incentive to break the law. Why spend extra money working to decrease emissions or pollution levels if no one’s holding you accountable? And it creates an uneven and unfair playing field for the majority of businesses and industries that do comply with America’s health and safety laws. They are now at an economic disadvantage.
And this is all occurring while the threat of climate change reaches an all-time high. With science debunked in Washington, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently told the world we have a little over a decade to substantially reduce heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to 45 percent of what they were in 2010. By 2050, emissions need to effectively be kept at zero in order to stave off the most severe effects of climate change.
The IPCC report is a red flag, to America in particular, that we can’t afford the roadblocks thrown up by the White House against any EPA action to curb greenhouse gases, especially as the U.S. is only behind China in leading the world in carbon emissions.
EPA is the nation’s premier public health agency protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we live, work and play on. At the core of its mission is enforcement — and that’s not happening, with or without a furlough. And once you delay or stop criminal prosecution of polluters, you stop protecting the American people.
Jack Clarke is director of public policy and government relations for Mass Audubon.