Washington, DC, March 7, 2019 — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to get out of the business of prosecuting polluters and instead give them free technical assistance when violations are uncovered, according to critical comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). EPA’s latest plan comes against the backdrop of plummeting pollution enforcement.
This week marks the end of the public comment period for EPA’s proposed National Compliance Initiatives for Fiscal Year 2020 through 2023. Formerly titled Enforcement Initiatives, EPA has renamed them to denote a deemphasis of enforcement actions against violators in favor of compliance assistance.
Instead of facing prosecution, corporate offenders will be offered free access to agency “expertise” in returning to compliance. The initiatives do not mention penalties for past violations or any attempt to recover the profits offending corporations earned from bypassing anti-pollution requirements, although these outcomes are still reflected in agency policies.
“EPA is not just giving corporate polluters a ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card for prior offenses, it is handing them a pass to commit future violations,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former state enforcement attorney, noting nose-diving levels of EPA criminal, civil, and administrative enforcement. “Anti-pollution enforcement is now a tool of last resort at EPA, if it is employed at all.”
Compounding this shift are new EPA policies and actions that –
- Defer to states even when state efforts fall below national minimum standards;
- Centralize enforcement decisions in headquarters so that political appointees, not career professionals, make prosecution decisions; and
- Disinvest in investigators and inspection staff, making discovery of violations less likely.
In the current FY 2017-2019 cycle, EPA had eight Enforcement Initiatives on designated air, water, and hazardous waste issues. In the coming cycle, EPA has dropped three priorities, retained three, modified two, and proposed two new ones. However, the 12-page document does not spell out concrete steps or outline dedicated resource and staffing commitments on any initiative. One new initiative on preventing childhood exposure to lead is only two sentences long, for example.
“EPA cannot achieve high levels of corporate pollution compliance without rigorous enforcement,” added PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins, pointing to a new PEER Pollution Enforcement Legal Resources web center to help affected communities file citizen suits and watchdog EPA and state enforcement efforts. “Given the abdication of enforcement responsibilities by EPA, people will have to increasingly take environmental laws into their own hands if they want them enforced.”