Environment Prosecutions Sink to Historic Low Under Trump

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Illustration by Giorgio Tadieski via Flickr

Federal prosecutions of environmental crimes have sunk to historic lows under the Trump administration.

The number of such cases in fiscal year 2019 was lower than in any year during the Obama, Bush or Clinton administrations going back to the mid-1990s, reports Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

There were 302 environmental prosecutions in the year that ended Sept. 30, a 10 percent drop from five years ago, 38.5 percent from the level of 491 reported in FY 2009, and a 64.5 percent decline from the 850 reported in FY 1999.

Better compliance by industries could account for part of the drop, but the Trump administration’s drive to favor working with industries over policing them probably plays a bigger role, Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity told  Courthouse News Service.

“There’s a pretty good signal from this administration that enforcement of violations is not the priority,” Hartl said. “The priority is working with industry to green light projects.”

But the downward trend in environmental prosecutions was evident well before President Trump took office.

An analysis in 2014 by The Crime Report of thousands of records compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), revealed that enforcement of corporate environmental crime was already “extremely rare.”

More than 64,000 facilities are currently listed in agency databases as being in violation of federal environmental laws, but in most years, fewer than one-half of one percent of violations trigger criminal investigations, according to EPA records, TCR reported.

While every violation can technically be treated as a crime, federal environmental law gives agencies discretion to pursue civil or administrative charges instead. According to environmental law experts, former EPA investigators and advocates contacted by The Crime Report, in practice this has meant most corporate violators can avoid criminal prosecution.

As a result, the vast majority of corporate environmental transgressions — even cases that involve the releases of large amounts of toxic chemicals — are relegated to civil administrative enforcement.

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Environmental criminal prosecutions FY 2019 by lead agency. Graphic courtesy TRAC

The most active federal agencies policing the environment are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which focuses on violations of clean air and water rules, hazardous waste disposal and controlling toxic substances; and the Interior Department, which concentrates on the protection of fish, wildlife and endangered species, through the Fish and Wildlife Service, and polices the use of public lands through the Bureau of Land Management.

Another reason for the decline could be years of budget shortfalls for the EPA since Republicans took control of Congress in 2015, Hartl said.

Similar budget squeezes have been in effect at the Department of Interior. Both agencies have been headed by cabinet secretaries who have made no secret of their belief that the federal government has over-regulated the environment. Many agency employees either quit or were forced out since the election of Trump.

In some areas of the country, Department of Interior agents have been the sole enforcement officers monitoring illegal cultivation of marijuana in national forest lands.

Fish and Wildlife SWAT teams arrested 745 armed felons involved in then-illicit marijuana grows in northern California’s remote national forests between 2013 and 2017. But agents complained that low budgets and staffing have seriously weakened efforts to prevent marijuana cartels from exploiting public lands for drug smuggling.

See The Thin Green Line could Use Some Help, The Crime Report, Nov. 30, 2016

According to TRAC, the Interior Department Fish and Wildlife Service was responsible for over half of federal environmental prosecutions (154) during FY 2019.  The EPA was responsible for one out of every five cases brought during the same period.

Civil fines and penalties for environmental violations have also gone down, TRAC reported.

The EPA fined polluters $69 million in fiscal 2018, the lowest since the agency created its enforcement office in 1994. The agency carried out 22 civil investigations that year, compared to 125 in 2016 during the Obama administration.

Over the 30-year period covered by the report, the third most active environmental policing agency was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which largely monitored illegal operation of vehicles on public lands—a misdemeanor. But the FBI has reduced its oversight over environmental offenses since 2001 when resources were diverted to counter-terrorim activities.

One legal expert believes the downward trend could endanger public health.

“There’s a risk that unenforced violations could lead to fires, leaks, spills, and contamination,” Ethan Elkind of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law told Courthouse News.

The complete TRAC report, with tables, can be downloaded here.

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