Trump is too lenient in enforcing federal anti-pollution laws: A Tampa Bay Times Editorial

Posted December 26, 2017 9:41 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump made headlines his first year in office by swiftly reversing huge parts of Obama-era environmental rules aimed at curbing climate change. Rolling back these policies is bad enough, but the administration also changed course by taking a more lenient tack in enforcing the federal antipollution laws that remain. This is a setback for public health, cleaner energy and corporate accountability that the Congress, states and cities have an obligation to confront.

A New York Times analysis of Trump's record in his first nine months shows that he taken a much softer approach than the previous two administrations, Democratic and Republican, over the same time period. The New York Times built a database of civil cases filed at the Environmental Protection Agency under Trump as well as under former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. It found that in its first 266 days, the EPA under Trump filed about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than under Obama and one-quarter fewer than under Bush. In addition, Trump's agency sought civil penalties of $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under its watch; adjusted for inflation, that is about 39 percent of the amount the Obama-era agency sought and 70 percent of that pursued under Bush.

There is more to protecting the environment than filing cases and imposing fines. But Trump's record reflects the softer line this administration has taken in its handling of enforcement cases. Confidential internal documents reviewed by the New York Times show the slowdown coincides with policy changes ordered by Trump's EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, who in his capacity as Oklahoma's attorney general sued the EPA under Obama for what Pruitt alleged was federal overreach.

Under Trump, the EPA has pulled back from using its power to force companies to retrofit their factories to cut pollution. The agency has demanded $1.2 billion worth of upgrades during its first nine months, the New York Times found, which, in real dollars, is about 12 percent what Obama sought and 48 percent of the amount sought under Bush. The documents also indicate that EPA enforcement officers across the country no longer have the authority to order certain tests for air and water pollution, the newspaper found. And it reported the slowdown was only made worse by the departure of more than 700 employees at the agency since Trump's election.

The EPA denies it has laid down on enforcement, saying the administration is more focused on helping companies comply with the laws than on fining or penalizing them. But current and recently departed EPA staff told the New York Times a different story. "If you're not filing cases, the cop's not on the beat," said a Bush-era EPA enforcement official, Granta Nakayama. "Certain people who are polluting are doing it with impunity right now," said Nicole Cantello, an EPA lawyer who has worked at the agency 26 years.

The pullback in policing and the Trump administration's effort to shift more of these cases down to state governments has hurt morale at EPA and fostered a culture of "paralysis" within the agency, some critics said, as employees hunker down in fear of running afoul of the agency's new approach. Congress needs to ensure that EPA enforces the laws on the books and works with the public interest in mind to ensure companies comply with both the letter and spirit of environmental regulations. It may fall to states and cities to call attention to violations and to call out the EPA to perform its duty. But there is no substitute for federal protection of the nation's air and water -- and no reason the agency cannot promote compliance and crack down on polluters at the same time.

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