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Cost of Polluter Penalties at 20-Year-Low Under Trump’s EPA

Politics
A stop sign in front of EPA headquarters. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Civil fines charged to polluters by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Trump administration fell 85 percent during the last fiscal year when compared to the average annual amount charged over the past two decades, The Washington Post reported Thursday. That makes last year the lowest average year for penalties since 1994.


The numbers come from an analysis of agency data conducted by former EPA Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance head Cynthia Giles, who served the agency during the Obama administration and is now a guest fellow at the Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program. Giles and other former officials warned that a decline in fines put America's environment and health at risk, since high fines help ensure it is costlier for industry to break the law than follow it.

"The public expects EPA to protect them from the worst polluters," Giles told The Washington Post. "The Trump EPA is not doing that. What worries me is how industry will respond to EPA's abandonment of tough enforcement."

Over the past two decades, the EPA charged an average of more than $500 million a year in fines, adjusted for inflation. During the last fiscal year, that number fell to $72 million. The cost of complying with EPA regulations also fell last fiscal year, from an average of $7.8 billion over the past two decades to $5.6 billion.

The analysis was reviewed by the Environmental Integrity Project, whose executive director, Eric Schaeffer, said it was a good snapshot of the Trump EPA's approach, since it covered the first fiscal year when only Trump had been in charge and fewer cases would have carried over from the Obama administration.

"By that time, you should have momentum and you should be making your mark on the program," Schaeffer told The Washington Post.

In a statement emailed to CNN, however, current Assistant Administrator for EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Susan Bodine took issue with the analysis:

"The Washington Post's January 24 article about EPA enforcement suffers from serious analytic errors. Let there be no mistake -- EPA enforcement will continue to correct non-compliance using all the tools at its disposal, including imposing civil penalties to maintain a level playing field and deter future misconduct, To suggest otherwise undermines our enforcement efforts and fails to acknowledge to good work performed by EPA enforcement staff every year."

One of Bodine's complaints was that the average civil fines calculated for the past two decades included outliers such as the year that penalties paid by BP following its major oil spill raised the yearly total by $5.7 billion. However, The Washington Post calculated that even with that outlier excluded, the last fiscal year's average fines would still be around 55 percent below the average for the last 20 years.

Former coal-lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who is currently heading the EPA as acting administrator and has been nominated by the president to run the agency permanently, said in his Senate confirmation hearing that the agency was focusing on "compliance assurance," making sure companies follow the rules ahead of time, rather than waiting for them to break the law and then slapping them with fines.

"The more compliance assurance that we have, fewer enforcement actions we need to take," he told the Senate, according to CNN.

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Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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