A lengthy report Sunday from The New York Times suggesting the EPA is pulling back enforcement efforts on polluters misses a couple of glaring points that could help explain the agency’s supposed scale back.
President Donald Trump “has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations … toward polluters,” NYT reporter Eric Lipton wrote without mentioning the role former President Barack Obama’s administration played in wallowing out the agency’s enforcement arm.
The EPA started about 1,900 cases during the first nine months under agency chief Scott Pruitt’s leadership, that is about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama’s first EPA administrator, according to data Lipton compiled during the first few months of the Trump-era.
Recent reports appear to complicate Lipton’s analysis. The number of special agents in the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division cratered from 207 to 154 during the Obama era and reduced the number of cases by 47 percent, according to documents Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) obtained earlier in 2017 through open records requests.
The EPA has 147 special agents in its Criminal Investigation Division. This is less than half the number of those employed in 2003. The agency’s dwindling numbers have not been lost on some career EPA officials.
“The last administration crippled EPA’s criminal enforcement program,” Henry Barnet, director of the EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics, and Training, said in a press statement earlier in 2017. He sounded an optimistic tone about Pruitt’s ability to resuscitate the agency’s enforcement division.
“Administrator Pruitt is highly supportive of our program, he took the unprecedented step of meeting with our criminal investigators and reaffirmed that we’d have the resources to carry out our mission,” said Barnet, who has headed the unit since 2011.
Obama’s decision to slash investigations 47 percent and staff 24 percent was done, in part, to shift investigations to a new enforcement system called Next Generation Compliance in 2014. The new system was done to ease oversight through electronic reporting and “advanced pollution detection technology.”
Environmentalists groused about the decision. “There’s no evidence companies are increasing their compliance because of the change,” Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director, told reporters in August when his group obtained the documents. The agency’s cuts, he said, were not made to save money.
Lipton’s analysis also chalked up the enforcement slowdown to the departure of more than 700 employees at the EPA since Trump took office, many of whom were offered buyouts to reduce the agency’s size. He has not mentioned in previous reports whether the Obama-era shift to a digital platform helped reduce the agency’s ability to target polluters.
EPA fired back at Lipton’s reporting on Sunday. There “is not only no reduction in EPA’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws, but a greater emphasis on compliance in the first place,” the agency said in a press statement shortly after the report was published.
Pruitt “has not directed EPA staff to decrease their enforcement efforts and no request to gather enforcement information has been denied,” EPA said, adding that TheNYT’s account “distorted the facts” on its enforcement efforts.
Lipton and Pruitt have a complicated past. He has been reporting on the former Oklahoma attorney general since at least 2014 when Lipton published an article detailing a supposedly “secret alliance” between Pruitt and oil and gas companies to defeat EPA regulations.
TheNYT’s report Sunday was not the only one the EPA has taken exception to in recent months. Lipton wrote an article in October, for instance, detailing how EPA appointee Nancy Beck is supposedly directing the agency to weaken regulations targeting toxic chemicals. The agency refused to answer Lipton’s request for comment and, instead, lashed out on his supposed biased reporting.
“No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for the agency, told Lipton in an email about his coverage of the EPA during the past several months. Beck, a one-time executive at the American Chemistry Council, has repeatedly pushed for changes to various chemical regulations.
“The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country,” said Bowman, who also worked at the American Chemistry Council before joining the administration.
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