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Environmental Penalties Down Under President Trump

An oil refinery in Richmond, Calif.

An oil refinery in Richmond, Calif.

AP, Paul Sakuma

Since President Trump took office in January, enforcement of environmental laws has dropped dramatically, compared with past administrations. A study released by the Environmental Integrity Project finds that $12 million in civil penalties have been collected from violators in 26 cases between January and the end of July.

“President Trump campaigned on a promise of ‘law and order,’ but apparently law enforcement for big polluters is not what he had in mind,” said Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA. “The early returns show fewer cases with smaller penalties for violations of environmental law. If this drop-off in environmental enforcement continues, it will leave more people breathing more air pollution or swimming in waterways with more waste.”

That’s significantly less than the number of cases prosecuted and the penalties collected under the same six month period by the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations. Under Barack Obama, the Justice Department prosecuted 34 cases, collecting $36 million in the time period. Under George W. Bush, 31 cases were lodged, bringing in $30 million in penalties. Under Bill Clinton, there were 45 cases filed, with penalties totaling $25 million.

The Environmental Integrity Project looked at environmental law violations referred to the Justice Department by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.) Most cases are resolved by consent decrees, which may take months or years to negotiate. But the group says the number and the type of cases filed by an administration in its first months give an indication of how aggressive it will be in enforcing environmental laws.

The study also looks at how Trump compares with Obama and Bush in requiring something termed “injunctive relief.” It’s a measurement tracked by the EPA of how much violators have to spend to bring their plants and practices into compliance with the law. Using that standard, the Trump administration has required much less from polluters than the Obama and Bush administration. In its first six months, the Trump administration has logged $197 million in injunctive relief, compared with $1.2 million under Obama and $710 million under Bush.

In some cases involving violations of the Clear Air Act, the EPA tallies how much pollution is likely to be reduced under a consent decree. Many of those cases involve particulates, substances like sulfur dioxide which can cause asthma and heart disease and lead to premature deaths. By tracking how must pollution will be reduced, the EPA estimates how many premature deaths were avoided by the enforcement action. Using that yardstick, in the first six months of the Bush administration, at least 549 premature deaths were avoided. Under Obama, at least 184 premature deaths were avoided. For the Trump administration, that figure is much lower. At least seven premature deaths were avoided.

In issuing its report, the Environmental Integrity Project says, compared with earlier administrations, so far the fines imposed on polluters by the Trump administration have been relatively modest.

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