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U.S. House Investigates Trump EPA’s Failure to Enforce Laws

Tom Pelton

Last week, the new Democratic majority in the U.S. House held its first oversight hearing into what the Trump Administration has been doing to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Voice of clerk during hearing: “Please rise and raise your right hand so you may be sworn in….”

The administration hired a former coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, to run EPA.  Among other cuts and rollbacks, Wheeler’s first act in office was to weaken pollution control rules for the management of coal ash dumps at power plants. These dumps are often unlined and leaking toxic metals including lead and arsenic into groundwater at more than 240 sites across the U.S., including in Maryland, according to utility company monitoring data.

This pollution poses a threat to streams, rivers, and drinking water supplies. But the loosening of rules is good news for Wheeler’s former clients in the coal business.  EPA predicts Wheeler’s regulatory change will save coal power plants about $30 million a year.

On the hot seat during the February 26 hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee was not the EPA Administrator himself, but his assistant administrator, Susan Bodine, who directs environmental enforcement for the Trump Administration. She took the questions because the focus of the hearing was the sharp drop in EPA law enforcement under Trump.

Here’s what Bodine told the committee:  “I’m pushing back on these myths about our enforcement program.  A strong enforcement program does not mean that we have to collect a particular dollar amount of penalties, or take a particular number of formal actions.”

Her use of the word “myths” did not fit with reality.  Her own agency, 18 days earlier, had issued a detailed report packed with statistics that prove that environmental enforcement under the Trump Administration plummeted to the lowest level in decades last year.

According to the Trump Administration’s data:  The number of people charged with environmental crimes last year, 105, was the fewest on record in at least 18 years.  The number of inspections conducted by EPA last year, 10,612; and civil penalties against polluters, $69 million, were also the lowest in decades.

Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland said: “I think there is plenty of evidence here that the mission you have of fair and effective enforcement of environmental laws is not being fulfilled, based on the numbers that we’re seeing.”

Also not buying Susan Bodine’s myth about the “myth” of declining enforcement was the chairman of the committee, Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat these numbers,” Pallone said.  “It appears that the Trump EPA is relying on industry to voluntarily come forward and disclose when they’re not in compliance.  Nobody here can really believe that the worst offenders of environmental laws will voluntarily come forward to disclose their violations.  EPA must have a robust enforcement presence.”

What the Democratic Congressman was getting at is the Trump Administration’s policy shift toward education and voluntary compliance for polluters, instead of penalties. Republicans emphasize "law and order," penalties, and prison, when it comes to the poor. But when oil and gas companies break the law, they prefer a lighter approach that emphasizes efficiency and profitability for shareholders.

Republican Congressman Jeff Duncan of South Carolina said during the hearing: “When the EPA is inefficient, they are holding up capital.”

Notice that the implied victim here is the owner of the polluting company, not the people living downwind who have to breathe the plant’s benzene emissions or other pollutants.

The Trump Administration’s claim is that a voluntary approach to enforcement is just as effective at reducing pollution.

But this is not true. Federal records show that the amount of air pollution reduced through EPA enforcement actions dropped by 64 percent in the Trump Administration’s first two years, compared to the same period under the Obama Administration.

It’s private wealth that benefits from this, and public health that suffers.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.