Civil Penalties Against Polluters Drop by Half During First Year of Trump Administration

After a Year in Office, Civil Cases for Pollution Violations Decline by 44 Percent and Penalties Down by 49 Percent 

For a copy of the full report, click here.

For a copy of the violation notices mentioned in the report, click here.

Washington, D.C. – As EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt prepares to mark his one-year anniversary on Saturday, a new report documents that federal civil penalties against polluters have fallen by about half compared to the first year of the previous three administrations.

The Environmental Integrity Project’s review of federal records over the last year revealed that the Trump Administration lodged consent decrees for 48 civil cases against polluters and collected $30 million in penalties from Inauguration Day on January 20, 2017, until January 20, 2018.

Those results reflect 44 percent fewer cases and a 49 percent drop in penalties compared to the average results during the first year of the Obama, Bush, and Clinton Administrations. The Obama Administration, for example, lodged consent decrees for 71 civil cases and collected $71 million in penalties during its first year. The Bush Administration lodged 112 consent decrees and collected $50 million in penalties; and the Clinton Administration lodged 73 decrees and collected $55 million.

“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.”

The Environmental Integrity Project’s report also provides 15 examples of industrial facilities across the U.S. – including in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota – that received notices from EPA for serious violations of air pollution limits before the Trump Administration took office, but no penalties or cleanup orders since. Some of these cases involve lead, sulfur dioxide and other dangerous pollutants threatening nearby communities. More than 260,000 people living within three miles of these plants, including at least 77,000 people below the poverty line. (See list below)

“A vigorous enforcement program is an essential tool for delivering the promise of our environmental statutes,” said George Czerniak, former EPA Director, Air and Radiation Division, Region V (Chicago). “Without it, our regulatory and permit limits are merely suggestions.” Read Czerniak’s full statement.

These cases are still open, so investigations may be continuing or settlement negotiations underway. But EPA’s ability to uncover and correct these violations will fade if President Trump and Congress continue to slash the agency’s enforcement budget.

More significant than civil penalties, in many cases, are pollution cleanup projects that companies agree to undertake as part of settlement agreements with the EPA and U.S. Department of Justice. These cleanup projects – called “injunctive relief” in legal terms – can include the installation of wastewater treatment plants, of air pollution control technology and other systems.

In its first year in office, the Trump Administration required 30 polluters to pay almost $1 billion for these pollution control projects as part of the injunctive relief of civil cases, which was far less than the 54 projects worth $3.3 billion during President Obama’s first year, or the 36 projects worth $1.4 billion under President George W. Bush, according to a review of the Federal Register. (It should be noted that none of the figures in the EIP report include criminal or Superfund cases).

In addition to presenting these numbers, the Environmental Integrity Project’s report highlights pollution violations that are still pending, and need attention because they have exposed communities downwind to higher levels of toxic metals, soot and other dangerous pollutants:

  • Illinois and Minnesota: A scrap metal processing facility owned by Behr Iron & Steel in Rockford, Illinois, and a lead recycling plant south of Minneapolis owned by Gopher Resource, violated standards meant to minimize emissions of lead.  A December 28, 2016, EPA violation notice informed Behr that lead levels at the Illinois plant’s fence line failed health-based standards. A November 25, 2015, notice to Gopher warned the company that its lead smelter in Eagan is located in an area that already fails to meet air quality standards for this dangerous neurotoxin.
  • Minnesota: On January 8, 2016, EPA sent a violation notice to the St. Paul Refinery, notifying the owners that its flare gas contained up to 13 times more hydrogen sulfide than its permit allowed, which means the flare released much higher amounts of sulfur dioxide. That pollutant contributes to asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments, and forms fine particles that increase the risk of heart disease and premature death.
  • Indiana: On June 28, 2016, EPA sent a violation notice to a company, American Oxide and Magnetics International, that owns chemical plants in Portage and Burns Harbor, Indiana. The notice indicated that the facilities had violated the Clean Air Act hundreds of times over the previous decade, releasing hydrochloric acid. At high enough doses, the acid is corrosive to the eyes, skin, and mucus membrane, and can cause inflammation of the lungs.
  • Ohio: On December 21, 2016, Chesapeake Energy received a violation notice from EPA stating that 15 of its well pads in Eastern Ohio’s Carroll and Columbiana counties were releasing illegal amounts of smog-forming pollutants (volatile organic compounds) that can cause headaches, asthma attacks, irritations, and damage to the liver and central nervous system.
  • Ohio: A metal manufacturing plant owned by Globe Metallurgical in Waterford, Ohio, received a violation notice from EPA on January 30, 2015 for emitting illegal amounts of particulate air pollution and expanding without first obtaining a required permit or upgrading its pollution control equipment.
  • Ohio: A pair of steel plants in Canton owned by Timken Steel had violations documented by EPA on November 2, 2015 that included the Faircrest Plant releasing twice as much mercury as permitted and the Harrison Plant discharging three times as much soot as allowed.

“These cases help to illustrate why enforcement matters to public health, especially to the working class neighborhoods and that are more likely to be found next to the largest sources of the most dangerous pollutants,” Schaeffer said.  “These are the very communities that President Trump keeps saying he wants to help.  He can do so by giving EPA the leadership and the resources it needs to enforce our environmental laws.”

Read the full report, “Paying Less to Pollute.”

Download copies of the violation notices mentioned in the report, here.

To listen to an audio recording of the 2/15/18 telephone press conference, click here.

The Environmental Integrity Project is a 15-year-old nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, based in Washington D.C., dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health.

Media Contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, or (202) 888-2703