Pollution Prosecutions Plummet to Lowest Level in Decades Under Trump
A new report finds that criminal prosecutions for polluting the environment in violation of the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act have dropped to their lowest levels in decades under the Trump administration, as The New York Times reported.
The report was written by David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan who worked for the Department of Justice for 17 years and served as its top environmental prosecutor from 2000 to 2007.
In the paper, the career prosecutor-turned-professor analyzed 14 years of cases and found that in the first two years of the Trump administration, criminal prosecutions for violations of the Clean Water Act dropped 70 percent. Similarly, prosecutions for violations of the Clean Air Act dropped 50 percent in the first two years since Trump took office.
"No matter what the future holds, the data from the first two years under President Trump reveals a dramatic departure from the non-partisan support for pollution prosecutions that had existed across administrations, which leaves Americans less safe and the environment less protected," Uhlmann wrote.
Uhlmann presented the paper at the American Bar Association's fall environmental conference. While the paper is available online now, it will be published in the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law, according to The New York Times.
The paper noted that there were only nine criminal prosecutions under the Clean Water Act in 2018. "Under President Donald J. Trump the bottom fell out," Uhlmann wrote, as The New York Times reported.
Uhlmann told The New York Times that the numbers show a dramatic decline in both the quantity and the quality of the prosecutions that the administration is pursuing.
While the study looked at the first two years of the Trump administration and found a pattern that shattered the author's perception that law enforcement operated independently of political influence, recent data has shown the trend continued through 2019.
According to Justice Department data analyzed by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the total number of environmental prosecutions in fiscal year 2019 was lower than any year during the administrations of the previous three presidents, which dates back to 1993, as Courthouse News reported.
For that year, the percent of prosecutions for environmental violations was 64.5 percent lower than it was two decades earlier.
"There's a risk that unenforced violations could lead to fires, leaks, spills, and contamination," said Ethan Elkind, climate program director at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, as Courthouse News reported.
While criminal prosecutions have plummeted under Trump, so have civil prosecutions, according to The New York Times. Civil settlements are a powerful tool to ensure that polluters pay to clean up past mistakes and implement safeguards against future pollution issues.
A lawsuit filed last week in Massachusetts by the Conservation Law Foundation named Attorney General William Barr and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler as defendants for ending the practice that forces polluters to clean up for their actions and implement protections. The lawsuit notes that those violations tend to affect low-income and minority communities disproportionally, and the decision to abandon civil prosecutions and settlements, "runs directly counter to Congress' design when passing laws such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act."
Judith Enck, a former regional administrator at the EPA, told The New York Times that Uhlmann's paper is an accurate portrayal of an administration that "acts like our bedrock environmental laws are simply suggestions. This approach will result in more pollution and more damage to health."
She added that what the administration has done is "unconscionable."
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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