The Environmental Protection Agency has drastically reduced its enforcement of laws that limit air and water contamination since President Trump appointed pro-industry appointees to run the department.
Financial penalties for violating pollution standards have plunged 85 percent, to a level not seen in a quarter of a century, The Washington Post reported. The fines totaled about $500 million annually, in inflation-adjusted terms, during the 20 years before Trump came into power. In 2018, the EPA reported that it had imposed just $72 million in penalties that year.
That was the lowest amount since the agency created its Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance to track the numbers, according to Cynthia Giles, a top EPA officer in the Obama administration. She warned that the government is no longer protecting the public from “the worst polluters.”
The Post explained that the fines are designed to deprive companies of the profits they reap from violating environmental regulations, to deter them from continuing such behavior.
One of the reasons for fewer polluters being penalized, according to the newspaper, is an EPA staffing crisis. Eighty or more agents in the agency's enforcement division have resigned or retired since Trump entered the White House. Only 147 agents, far less than the 200 that the Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990 mandated, are on staff. In December 2010, under President Obama, there were 272 investigators.
Mercury Rules Relaxed
The EPA's latest loosening of environmental protection was its decision, announced Dec. 28, to gut the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS). The agency claimed it is not “appropriate and necessary to regulate” such emissions from power plants, Common Dreams reported.
The EPA acknowledges that MATS prevents 11,000 deaths, and saves 130,000 Americans from suffering asthma attacks, per year. Studies have shown that people exposed to just a tiny bit of mercury are at risk of contracting a range of illnesses and diseases. Among the most vulnerable are infants, whose brain development may be impaired. Adults who come into contact with mercury are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer, cardiovascular ailments and lung disease.
The metal is one of the 180 dangerous air pollutants that Congress ordered the EPA to curtail. Forcing the largest power companies to comply with MATS has resulted in an estimated 5,000 fewer emergency-room visits and 4,700 heart attacks annually since the regulations went into effect. The biggest beneficiaries are low-income people, whose communities are much more likely to be harmed by pollution-spewing plants.
Water Less Safe to Drink
Also in December, the EPA shelved the Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulations and wrote new rules that threaten drinking water and natural habitats. Common Dreams pointed out that owners of mines, power plants and large agribusiness operations urged officials to scale back pollution standards concerning ash, heavy metals, oil, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides and animal waste.
When WOTUS went into effect in 2015, Obama's EPA reported that almost half of the nation's waterways and one-third of its wetlands were in “poor biological condition.” One of three Americans were getting their drinking water from sources not subject to federal pollution regulation.
Large industries, along with allies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau, fought WOTUS in the courts. The legal challenges led to the rules not being enforced in 28 states. One month after becoming president, Trump issued an executive order scrapping WOTUS. He claimed that the regulations had eliminated “hundreds of thousands of jobs.”
The administration concocted a cost-benefit analysis method that rejected the previous process and favored industry. Obama's EPA estimated that while WOTUS enforcement would cost between $158 million and $465 million, the benefits in terms of job creation and water protection would total $349 million to $572 million.
In 2017, the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University's School of Law predicted that the positive effects of WOTUS had amounted to between $612 million and $1 billion. Trump's team maintained that the figure was only $34 million to $73 million, while enforcement cost taxpayers between $162 million and $476 million.
Independent studies have disputed the current administration's math. Also, no one has been able to prove that any jobs were lost in the states that complied with WOTUS. The policy actually created 126,000 jobs with an average salary of $50,000, according to research by the University of North Carolina and Yale University. In addition, there are 828,000 additional jobs related to sports fishing as a result of WOTUS, a group of wildlife conservation organizations reported.
Environmental activists expect the deregulation of air and water quality to continue as long as Trump is in office. His first EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, was forced out of the post because of his violations of ethics laws. Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist, temporarily replaced Pruitt and is line to assume the permanent position.