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Decline in EPA Enforcement Endangers Americans

One afternoon during the summer of 2013, hundreds of pounds of toxic ash and steam exploded out of a hazardous waste incinerator and onto nearby homes in East Liverpool, Ohio. This ash contained toxic chemicals and levels of lead and arsenic that the Ohio Department of Health said could be hazardous to small children. Lead has long been known to damage children’s brains and nervous system development.

The regional EPA official responsible for investigating this incident determined that the hazardous waste incinerator – Heritage Thermal – had repeatedly released illegal amounts of pollution into the air, including during that explosion. The official submitted a formal letter of complaint toward the end of President Obama’s term, indicating that these Clean Air Act violations could warrant fines and legal action, but no action has been taken since President Trump took office. In response to this lack of action, the City Council of East Liverpool sent a protest letter to the EPA in November 2017.

A recent investigation by the New York Times found more than a dozen facilities like Heritage Thermal that received violation notices from the EPA toward the end of President Obama’s term, but have not faced enforcement actions under President Trump. These data, which the Environmental Integrity Project provided the Times with, show that enforcement actions have dropped significantly across the board under Scott Pruitt’s EPA, endangering people in communities across the U.S.

This sharp drop in enforcement is not simply the product of switching from a Democratic administration to a Republican one – current EPA enforcement is much lower than under the George W. Bush administration too. According to the Times, during Scott Pruitt’s first nine months, the EPA filed about one-third fewer civil cases than it did under President Obama, and about one-quarter fewer cases than under President Bush. The agency has also sought $50.4 million in civil penalties – about 61 percent less than under President Obama and about 30 percent less than under President Bush, accounting for inflation.

This dramatic drop in enforcement may just be the beginning – the Trump administration has proposed cutting funding for EPA enforcement activities by 24 percent and the EPA’s overall budget by 31 percent. Frontier Group’s recent report series, Rough Waters Ahead, documents the impacts these cuts would have on our waterways across the nation – from Puget Sound to the Great Lakes to the Delaware River. States and tribes currently rely on EPA grants for many essential activities, like dealing with stormwater and agricultural runoff and locating and cleaning up storage tanks that are leaking oil and other hazardous products into groundwater. Under the proposed plan, these crucial programs would be eliminated. Another particularly concerning part of the budget is the proposal to cut the Superfund cleanup program by 30 percent – this funding is used to clean up the nation’s most threatening toxic and hazardous sites.

As the Times story and our recent reports document, the unravelling of environmental protections is putting Americans’ health and safety at risk. Holding polluters accountable through strict enforcement of our environmental laws and cleaning up existing pollution is not a choice for each new administration – it is a legal requirement and duty, one that Americans and our political leaders should work to ensure that the Trump administration fulfills.