EPA prosecutions of polluters approach quarter-century lows

WASHINGTON (AP) — Criminal prosecution and convictions of polluters have fallen to quarter-century lows under the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, deepening three years of overall enforcement declines, according to Justice Department statistics.

And while the administration says it’s focusing on quality over quantity in pollution cases, using its enforcement resources to go after the biggest and worst offenders, an Associated Press analysis found little sign of that so far in court cases closed in 2019.

The criminal pollution cases initiated, and won this year, under the Trump administration, appear to be smaller one-offs, such as an Alaska fishing captain who let a reality TV show crew film his cheering crew as it dumped waste overboard into an Alaskan strait in 2017.

EPA spokeswoman Melissa Sullivan said Thursday it was “not unusual” for complex criminal cases to take years to move from initial investigations to filing of charges. Sullivan said that some statistics, such as a one-year rise from 107 to 133 in total number of defendants charged in criminal cases, were up in 2019.

“We have devoted substantial resources to larger, more complex investigations with more benefit to the environment and public health,” Justice Department spokesman Wyn Horbuckle said in a statement. “Such cases have resulted in billions of dollars in criminal penalties.”

But an environmental watchdog group and a former regional EPA criminal enforcement official said three years of falling enforcement numbers show the Trump administration gutting criminal investigations and prosecutions at the agency.

“These numbers in the last three years, what they show is the dismantling, intelligently, of this program,” said Michael Hubbard, a former special agent in charge for the EPA’s criminal investigation division in New England.

It’s the Trump administration “getting away with increasing the risk to health and the environment at the benefit of corporate officials who want to make more money,” Hubbard said.

“By any recognized metric, the odds of corporate polluters facing criminal consequences have reached a modern low,” stated Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney and executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility watchdog and advocacy group.


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