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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Making America Polluted Again

Environmental Prosecutions Hit Record Low; Multiple Federal Agencies Bow to Polluters

Related imageTrump’s assaults on the environmental protections put in place by previous presidents have come at breakneck speed. 

At the same time, he’s dangerously applied the brakes to the enforcement of remaining regulations. 

So much so that if we stay at this pace, we will end the year with the lowest number of environmental criminal prosecutions recorded in more than two decades, since the Justice Department started tracking these cases.

For the first six months of 2017, the federal government reported 152 new environmental criminal prosecutions across all agencies which handle these crimes, according to the Justice Department. At this rate, that would put us at 304 for the fiscal year—down 22.6% from 2016—according to a case-by-case analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse or TRAC.

Compared to five years ago, that’s a staggering 50% drop in criminal prosecutions. And compared to 10 years ago, when prosecutions peaked at 927 under President George W. Bush, that would represent a 67% drop.

Among the different agencies which prosecute environmental crimes, the Department of the Interior led the pack for the first half of this year with roughly half of the cases, according to TRAC. It was followed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which handled about 21% of the cases. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation prosecuted roughly 10%, the Department of Agriculture, nearly 8% and the Commerce Department just over 3% of cases. Other agencies involved included the Department of Homeland Security and some components of the Justice Department.

One main reason for the drop in prosecutions is the major decrease in manpower.

“The danger, the subtle danger, more than explicitly rolling back regulations, is cutting the enforcement budget, which is part of what Trump is proposing,” said Kathy Setian, a project manager and engineer at the EPA for 20 years; now retired. 

“Then you have eviscerated a meaningless set of laws. People just say, get rid of these laws, because they’re not doing the jobs, they’re not spending money on enforcement. They don’t have the manpower to do it. Environmental regulations drive the need for jobs. If industry hires people for compliance with environmental laws, if enforcement goes away, you don’t have to hire them anymore.”

The EPA alone now has less than half of its criminal special agents on the job with 147 agents in its Criminal Investigation Division (CID), compared to 12 years ago, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)

That’s below the minimum requirement of 200 agents set forth by the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990, though the agency has been running below that level for a while.

These are armed, badge-carrying special agents who investigate the most serious environmental crimes, like corporate pollution offenses.

Their two most active dockets are the criminal violators of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. With EPA Director Scott Pruitt rolling back regulations as he works to outright kill that legislation, it has made it all the more difficult for investigators to enforce violations.

As the dwindling number of convictions show, anti-pollution cases that do make it to prosecution are facing an uphill battle. Today, cases that lead to conviction represent just a little more than half of those convicted just three years ago, according to PEER, which obtained its data from the EPA using the Freedom of Information Act.

The EPA is in a hurry to fill one vacancy. Susan Bodine, the nominee to lead the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, is expected to take up her position before officially being confirmed by the Senate. 

In a recent internal email sent by EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, and obtained by PEER, he announced that Bodine would join the agency on Sept. 5 as special counsel to the administrator on enforcement, carefully noting that “Larry Starfield remains the acting assistant for enforcement and will work closely with Susan in her new role until the U.S. Senate confirms her.”

Inserting Bodine ahead of her confirmation is certainly a head scratcher considering her job is to oversee the agency’s department of law enforcement and compliance. 

The move also goes against a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision citing the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 which bars unconfirmed presidential nominees from performing the duties of that office in an acting capacity or as a “first assistant who automatically assumes acting duties.”

Action Box/What You Can Do About It

Contact Scott Pruitt at the EPA and demand that he keep environmental enforcement intact and increase manpower for criminal enforcement. Call him at 202-564-4700, reach him on Facebook, Twitter or email him at

Contact your representatives and senators and ask them to support and increase our environmental enforcement.