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Is the EPA 'Soft on Environmental Violators'? The Data Suggests Yes; the Agency Says No.

During a hearing, the EPA's top official for enforcement defended the agency's low performance figures.
The Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The Environmental Protection Agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Several independent reports agree: Many measures of the Environmental Protection Agency's policing of polluters hit historic lows last year, including the number of inspections the agency conducted, the number of civil cases it opened and concluded, the value of pollution controls it required of companies that broke the law, and the value of penalties it imposed on lawbreakers. The EPA's own annual report of its performance shows these trends.

At a hearing on Tuesday, however, an enforcement official from the EPA argued that these numbers aren't important. She said she's working on alternative measures that will better reflect what her office does to ensure mines, factories, and pipelines follow America's environmental laws.

"Some are judging our work based on a set of narrow parameters and they're drawing the conclusion that EPA's somehow soft on environmental violators, that EPA doesn't care about compliance with the law. And I'm here to tell you that is absolutely not true," said Susan Bodine, who leads the EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "I want everyone to understand that these measures do not adequately represent the progress and the results that we are achieving."

Bodine spoke at an oversight hearing held by the House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee. Democrats there sharply criticized the EPA's falling enforcement numbers. "I see an agency that's giving polluters a free pass and it's putting our health and our environment at risk," said Representative Diana DeGette (Colorado), the committee's chair.

Bodine argued there are reasons for the EPA's low numbers that don't mean the agency is doing less. For example, under a new push to get states to take on more environmental enforcement, the EPA might work with a state to inspect facilities, but then count the action as the state's work, she said. In addition, some EPA enforcement numbers, like fines, can vary wildly from year to year, depending on whether there was a big case that year, such as the billion-dollar settlements the EPA reached with BP in the fiscal year 2013, over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and with Volkswagen in 2017, over cheating on emissions tests. The implication is that it's just a coincidence—and not Trump administration policy—that caused the drop in some of the enforcement numbers in 2017 and 2018.

Democrats were skeptical of Bodine's explanations. DeGette asked how many state-led environment enforcement cases there were in the last two years. Bodine replied that the EPA had only just started asking its regional offices to formally track these cases. "So you don't really know if the number of state cases went up," DeGette said.

So why does the EPA still collect and report these numbers that its officials are now saying don't represent its work? Bodine explained: During her confirmation hearing, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) had asked her whether she would continue collecting these data points, some of which the EPA has used as indicators of its performance for decades. Bodine promised she would.