News Feature | January 29, 2019

Trump Supporters, Critics Butt Heads Over Reasons For Sharp Decline In EPA Penalties

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

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After two years under President Trump, the number of civil penalties issued by the U.S. EPA for polluters has dropped significantly.

“Civil penalties for polluters under the Trump administration plummeted during the past fiscal year to the lowest average level since 1994, according to a new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data,” per The Washington Post. “In the two decades before President Trump took office, EPA civil fines averaged more than $500 million a year, when adjusted for inflation. Last year’s total was 85 percent below that amount — $72 million.”

Civil penalties apply to a range of EPA violations, including water contamination, and have historically been coupled with criminal charges. A 2014 incident in which pipe corrosion negligence by Duke Energy led to the collapse of a coal ash pond in North Carolina drew such a punishment, for instance.

According to the report, the Trump administration explained the drop in penalties as the result of a new focus to work with companies before they violate the law, instead of punishing them after the fact. And Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator for the EPA, noted recently that the agency opened more criminal enforcement cases in 2018 than it had in 2017.

“He said enforcement actions last year resulted in removing ‘809 million pounds of pollution and waste’ from the environment,” per the Post. “And he said the agency has worked with companies it oversees to ensure they comply with federal rules, rather than levying charges against them or imposing fines.”

Some critics point to the drop in civil penalties as an indicator that the EPA under this administration is not doing as much to protect the country from pollution as it has in the past.

“The public expects EPA to protect them from the worst polluters,” Cynthia Giles, a former EPA enforcement office head, said, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. “The Trump EPA is not doing that. What worries me is how industry will respond to EPA’s abandonment of tough enforcement.”

Whether a drop in civil penalties indicates a more efficient and preemptive approach to pollution management or a decline in oversight appears to depend on which side you listen to.

To read more about oversight of industrial pollution visit Water Online’s Wastewater Regulations And Legislation Solutions Center.

Image credit: "Donald Trump," Matt Johnson © 2015, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/