Penalties for Polluters Drop by Half Under Trump Administration

By Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project

Federal civil penalties against polluters across the U.S. under the first year of the Trump administration fell by about half compared to the first year of the previous three administrations, according to an Environmental Integrity Project examination of federal records.

From Inauguration Day until Jan. 20, 2018, the Trump administration submitted to court consent decrees imposing fines and cleanup requirements on 48 polluters – including two in the Houston area for air pollution violations -- and collected $30 million nationally in penalties. 

Overall, the total across the U.S. was 49 percent drop in penalties and 44 percent fewer cases compared to the average results during the first years of the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations, according to the EIP report, “Paying Less to Pollute.”

Here are three takeaways from the report:

It is now easier to pollute

“President Trump’s dismantling of the EPA means violators are less likely to be caught, making illegal pollution cheaper,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement.  “The president’s ‘law and order’ agenda apparently wasn’t intended for fossil fuel companies and other big polluters.”

In contrast, the Obama Administration signed consent decrees for 71 civil cases and collected $71 million in penalties during its first year. The Bush Administration submitted 112 consent decrees and collected $50 million in penalties; and the Clinton Administration lodged 73 decrees and collected $55 million.

Houston ‘example’ is misleading

On Oct. 31, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency and Exxon Mobil announced a consent decree to resolve air pollution violations at eight chemical plants in Texas and Louisiana,including at the Baytown Refinery, which is along the Houston Ship Channel, about 25 miles east of downtown.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt touted the Exxon Mobil agreement as an example of the administration’s “commitment to enforce the law.” EPA’s press release said that Exxon Mobil would spend $300 million to install pollution controls that would eliminate several thousand tons of pollutants a year.

But EIP’s analysis of these totals revealed that they were misleading, because they include emission reductions that have occurred since the beginning of 2013 – almost five years before the enforcement agreement with EPA.

The consent decree’s pollution control standards for several of the company’s flares are actually weaker than the requirements of existing permits. Most of the flare gas pollution recovery systems appear to have been installed before the Oct. 31 agreement was signed.

“Claims that an enforcement action somehow prompted pollution control investments that occurred almost five years earlier is simply not credible,” EIP’s report states. 

We can do better

One reason for the decline in environmental enforcement is the Trump administration’s cuts to the EPA budget. Fewer dollars mean fewer investigators and enforcement staff to work on cases in the Houston area and across the country. 

Write an email or letter to your U.S. representative or senator today urging them to oppose any cuts to EPA’s budget because they will further hamper enforcement of air pollution laws and endanger the health of people living in the Houston area.

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