Since Donald Trump became president, the Environmental Protection Agency has been doing a lot less to target polluters than the previous two administrations, according to a new analysis of EPA enforcement data and confidential internal documents by the New York Times. In its first nine months under administrator Scott Pruitt — a coal-loving climate-change skeptic and longtime critic of the agency — the EPA has pursued far fewer civil cases, financial penalties, and factory-retrofitting demands against suspected polluters and other violators of environmental laws than it did during the same period of the Obama and Bush administrations.
The Pruitt-led EPA has also restricted one of its enforcement officers’ most effective tools for going after polluters. Those officers, to the displeasure of the oil and gas industry, used to be able to order their own tests of air and water quality to detect pollution, but are now required to seek permission from Washington beforehand, especially when they don’t have preexisting evidence of illegality or when state authorities object to the tests. So far, the agency appears to be conducting comparably fewer of these tests, but it maintains that it has not rejected any requests to do so.
The Times also reports that the agency has signaled that it will be abandoning some of its preexisting pollution cases, supposedly to let states take them over in what the EPA calls “cooperative federalism.” The move may just be a smokescreen for letting those cases slide, however. Internal documents reportedly show that the enforcement slowdown happened at the same time Pruitt instituted new policies favored by leaders in the fossil-fuel industry.
The fact that more than 700 EPA employees have left the agency since Trump won the presidential election, many via staff-reduction buyouts, isn’t helping with enforcement either. And top politically appointed positions at both the EPA and Justice Department remain vacant, too (though a coal-industry lobbyist was recently nominated to serve as the EPA’s deputy administrator).
“We are collaborating more with states and focusing more on outcomes,” an EPA spokesperson insisted in a statement to the Times, claiming the agency was now more focused on “bringing people back into compliance, than bean counting.” The agency also suggested it was using “informal” enforcement actions in addition to formal ones, and complained that the first nine months was too short of a timeframe to make accurate judgments about their progress or intentions.
Pruitt says he is no ally to polluters and that they will not be allowed to run amok as the Trump administration rolls back regulations across the government. The data in the Times analysis seems to indicate otherwise.