EPA Criminal Pollution Enforcement Cratering

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For Immediate Release: Jul 02, 2019
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

EPA Criminal Pollution Enforcement Cratering

Referrals, Prosecutions, and Convictions Continue Freefall to Historic Lows

Washington, DC — The chances of corporate polluters facing federal criminal prosecution are lower than any time in a generation, and dropping further with each passing month, according to figures obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). By every measure of output, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s criminal enforcement program is shriveling, with the lowest levels of production in more than 20 years.

Numbers reported by fiscal year from the Justice Department and EPA paint a bleak picture:

  • EPA made only 166 referrals to the Justice Department for prosecution during 2018, the lowest total in 30 years and fewer than half the referrals made in 2012. The first seven months of 2019 have yielded only 102 referrals, setting a pace for a 25-year low;
  • The 78 pollution prosecutions filed in 2018 are the lowest since 1994, and only half of cases brought in 2013. With only 36 cases filed in 2019, the projected 47 prosecutions represent an all-time low; and
  • The 62 convictions won in 2018 were the lowest total since 1995, and less than half the number won in 2014. With only 39 convictions more than halfway through 2019, this paltry conviction total does not signal a turnaround.

“These enforcement numbers are alarming and likely to get worse,” stated PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, explaining that the fewer referrals made this year, the lower prosecutions and convictions will be in future years. “If pollution enforcement is viewed as a pipeline, under Trump the intake valve is being shut close.”

EPA’s counter to these dismal numbers has been that its Criminal Investigation Division (CID) agents have increased the number of cases they have opened. But records that PEER obtained under the Freedom of Information Act indicate that CID opened only 126 cases during all of 2018. Even if all those cases resulted in criminal referrals it would represent a further decline. The number of criminal cases opened in 2019 totaled only 63, hardly an upward trend.

“The first two years of the Trump presidency reflect a pollution enforcement nosedive,” added PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, pointing out that the number of CID agents is still well below the 200 threshold that Congress set in the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990. “Not only are there fewer pollution cops on the beat but, under new policies, Trump appointees make the call on whether criminal cases go forward, meaning that corporate friends of this administration carry a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card in their back pockets.”


Look at declining EPA criminal enforcement outputs

View FY 18 defendants charged by region and media

View FY 19 defendants charged by region and media

See cases EPA claimed to open during FY 2018 and 2019

Scan roster of CID agents and departures

Trace pollution enforcement decline under Trump

Examine policies shriveling enforcement

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