After years of decline, the Biden administration says environmental enforcement is on the upswing

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted more on-site inspections of polluting industrial sites this year than at any time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the agency said Monday, as it looks to revive its enforcement program after more than a decade of budget cuts .

EPA has opened nearly 200 criminal investigations this year, a 70% increase from 2022, the agency said in a report. It completed nearly 1,800 civilian settlements, a 9% increase from 2022. More than half of the inspections and settlements involved poor and disadvantaged communities long scarred by pollution, the agency said, highlighting the emphasis of the Biden administration on environmental justice issues.

But some parts of the EPA's enforcement efforts are still lagging behind. For example, in 2023 it prosecuted 102 suspects. The Trump administration charged more every year, though most years only marginally. Nearly 200 defendants were indicted in the final years of the Obama administration. However, there has been an increase in the number of criminal cases they have recently opened.

EPA said its enforcement and compliance work has resulted in the reduction, treatment, elimination or minimization of 1.84 billion pounds of pollutants, and has required violators to pay more than $704 million in fines, penalties and restitution. The dollar amount is a 57% increase from 2022.

The increase comes as EPA enforcement staffing remains well below its peak more than a decade ago, even as officials move to add about 300 positions. The EPA has eliminated approximately 950 enforcement positions following budget cuts imposed since 2011.

The 2011 budget and debt deal, which included automatic spending cuts, “hit all agencies hard, but especially the EPA,” said David Uhlmann, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement. on-site inspections during the pandemic, which began nearly four years ago, and a series of actions by former President Donald Trump to roll back environmental regulations.

“While our work is not yet complete, the EPA's revamped enforcement program is making a positive difference in communities across America, especially for people living in underserved and overburdened communities that have borne the brunt of pollution for too long,” Uhlmann said in a statement declaration.

Uhlmann, who was named EPA enforcement chief in July after a two-year delay, said in an interview that enforcement efforts are “still a struggle” at the environmental agency.

“We can't replace a decade of staff reductions in one year, but I feel good that enforcement levels are back to pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

“EPA has increased enforcement activities across the country,” he said. “Polluters who have broken the law will be brought to justice.”

EPA sued the Norfolk Southern Railway over a train derailment in eastern Ohio that released dangerous chemicals and forced thousands of people to evacuate. Federal officials want to make sure the company pays for the cleanup.

The agency also sued Denka Performance Elastomer LLC, arguing that its petrochemical operations in southern Louisiana posed an unacceptable cancer risk to the predominantly Black community nearby. The EPA has demanded that the company reduce toxic emissions from its plant that makes synthetic rubber.

The Biden administration also went to court to try to help the troubled water system in Jackson, Mississippi, which almost completely collapsed in 2022 after a heavy rainstorm.

In May, the EPA reached an agreement with a BP subsidiary that required the company to reduce harmful pollution from its Indiana refinery. The company also agreed to pay a $40 million fine under the Clean Air Act.

The agency has set climate change and environmental justice as top priorities for enforcement, along with hazardous chemicals known as PFAS that are linked to a wide range of health problems, coal ash pollution, safe drinking water, toxic air pollution prevention and chemical accident prevention. , Uhlmann said.

Uhlmann, a longtime professor of environmental law at the University of Michigan Law School, declined to put a number on the agency's overall efforts. But given budget constraints and other issues, his staff has “pulled out of the closet” over the past year, he said.

Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former head of the EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement, said he would give the administration a “B” grade. They have increased enforcement and made some real improvements, but more is needed, he said.

“I have not seen any breakthrough in the enforcement actions. You're talking about a pretty low bar if you take Trump as a point of comparison,” he said.

Democrats and environmental groups condemned the Trump administration's enforcement efforts, especially during COVID-19, with one senator saying a “pandemic of pollution” had been unleashed.

The EPA under Trump weakened regulations on fuel efficiency and mercury emissions and refrained from enforcing a range of public health and environmental mandates because industries could struggle to comply during the pandemic. The rollbacks were among dozens of actions by the EPA to relax requirements for industry to monitor, report and reduce toxic pollutants, heavy metals and climate-damaging emissions from fossil fuels.

Despite complaints from the oil and gas industry about a series of rules targeting methane and other greenhouse gases, Uhlmann said EPA was “committed to fair and robust enforcement of the law.” We are not looking to put anyone out of business.”

EPA said it has obtained about $1.1 billion from so-called Superfund cleanup and cost recovery agreements. This brings the total value of Superfund enforcement actions to $50 billion since the program began in 1980. More than 3,900 Superfund sites have been identified across the country.