Trump is making it way cheaper to break environmental laws

August 10, 2017, 2:20pm

Breaking environmental laws is a whole lot cheaper under the Trump administration’s EPA, according to a new report on civil penalties by a watchdog group.

In the six months since President Donald Trump took office, the Justice Department collected about 60 percent less in civil penalties from polluters than the past three administrations had by this point in their first year, according to a report released Thursday by the Environmental Integrity Project. Within the first six months of his presidency, Barack Obama had collected $36 million; George W. Bush had collected $30 million.

So far, Trump has collected just $12 million, mostly from oil and chemical companies.

“It sends the message that it’s OK to violate the law and it’s the cost of doing business. And that’s a problem because it shouldn’t be a cost of doing business,” said Kyla Bennett, who worked on wetlands enforcement at the EPA’s New England region for nearly a decade and now works for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog organization. “The whole point of having a penalty system is to make it hurt so they don’t want to do it again.”

The EPA generally pursues civil penalties, Bennett explained, when a violator has made a huge mistake or likely should have known that they were breaking the law. (Criminal penalties are enacted when violators definitely should have known, or did know, that they were breaking the law.) They’re environmental consent decrees: Both the EPA and the violator agree that the law has been broken, and the violator has promised to pay whatever fines may follow.

Trump’s low penalties may be explained by the fact that his EPA, under the direction of Scott Pruitt, has lodged relatively fewer cases than his predecessors’. By this point in their presidencies, the Environmental Integrity Project found, Bill Clinton had lodged 45 consent decrees, Bush 31, and Obama 34. (The report did not look at Superfund sites.) Each of these cases almost certainly had their groundwork laid by the previous administration’s employees for months, if not years — but these numbers appear to indicate each president’s follow-through on his predecessors’ work.

“As the report admits, ‘[T]he data for the Trump administration’s record so far is just a snapshot,’” Patrick Traylor, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a statement. “These ‘snapshot’ assertions say much more about enforcement actions commenced in the later years of the Obama administration than it does about actions taken in the beginning of the Trump administration.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

“As the report admits, ‘[t]he data for the Trump administration’s record so far is just a snapshot and trends vary over time,’” Patrick Traylor, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said in a statement, adding that these consent decrees can take “months or years” to be lodged. “This ‘snapshot’ assertions say much more about enforcement actions commenced in the later years of the Obama administration than it does about actions taken in the beginning of the Trump administration. Despite this unfair report, EPA is committed to enforcing environmental laws to correct noncompliance and promote cleanup of contaminated sites.”

In a statement, the DOJ told VICE News, “We can’t comment on a report we haven’t seen and on data we haven’t verified. But what we can say is that the Department continues to vigorously enforce environmental laws to better protect the American people.” It cited as proof a $40 million criminal penalty for a vessel pollution case it obtained in the last six months.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s report also tracks what’s called “injunctive relief,” or the amount of money that violators will now need to spend in order to comply with environmental standards.

“It’s like, how much will it cost us to actually fix the problem that you caused?” Bennett explained. “To fix the toxic waste? To unfill that wetland? To clean that river back up again?”

The EPA didn’t track injunctive relief during Clinton’s first term, but during the first six months of the Obama administration, injunctive relief totaled $1.3 billion, according to the Environmental Integrity Project’s report. Under Bush, it cost $710 million. Under Trump, injunctive relief has amounted to just $197 million.

Bennett called that number “astounding,” adding that it was unlikely that the Trump administration has only seen relatively minor environmental violations so far this year. Because environmental violations can vary widely in size, one or two cases — like, say, a power plant clean-up — can tip the financial scales; however, it’d be a “statistical anomaly,” Bennett said, to only see such small cases for half a year.

“Administrator Scott Pruitt is the worst EPA administrator in history,” Judith Enck, former administrator of EPA Region 2, said in a call with reporters. “We know that he does not grasp the science of climate change, but this report now illustrates that Scott Pruitt is unwilling or unable to carry out the basic statutory mission of the EPA, which is enforcement of our environmental laws.”

Enck added, “It’s very clear to me that this will result in a lot more pollution and many more people getting sick from the policies of the Trump administration.”