Under Rauner, penalties sought against Illinois polluters have plummeted

Well before the Trump administration began shifting responsibility for enforcing environmental laws to the states, Illinois already had slowed down the policing of air and water pollution under Gov. Bruce Rauner.

A Tribune analysis of enforcement data shows that since the Republican businessman took office in 2015, penalties sought from Illinois polluters have dropped to $6.1 million — about two-thirds less than the inflation-adjusted amount demanded during the first three years under Rauner’s two predecessors, Democrats Pat Quinn and Rod Blagojevich.

Rauner’s enforcement record during the past three years also pales in comparison to the final year in office of the state’s last Republican governor, George Ryan. Adjusted for inflation, the penalties sought since Rauner took office are less than half the amount demanded as Ryan wrapped up his four-year term in 2002.

One of the main reasons enforcement is on the decline statewide is the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has cut back sharply on using its most powerful tool: referring cases to the state attorney general’s office for civil or criminal prosecution.

During Rauner’s first year as governor, the EPA referred 73 cases to the attorney general — by far the lowest number since 1991. The annual average during his tenure is 80.

By contrast, the EPA sent 198 referrals a year on average during Blagojevich’s first three years in office and 144 during the same time period under Quinn, the Tribune analysis found.

“I have been dismayed by the sudden dropoff in the number of IEPA referrals to my office,” Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a statement. “The failure to thoroughly investigate and refer violations of the laws has dangerous consequences for people’s health and the environment.”

. . .

Federal enforcement actions nationwide have declined significantly since Scott Pruitt took over as EPA administrator, the Environmental Integrity Project and others have found. Veteran staff at the U.S. EPA’s Chicago office said it has become more difficult to file cases under Pruitt, who as Oklahoma attorney general repeatedly challenged federal clean air and water regulations.

Pruitt’s new pick to lead the agency’s Chicago outpost, Cathy Stepp, is a former Wisconsin state official who rolled back enforcement of anti-pollution laws while serving in the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

Howard Learner, president of the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center, said cutbacks at the federal and state level threaten to erase hard-fought victories that led to cleaner air and water.

“If you don’t have enforcement, the good guys who follow the law are put at a competitive disadvantage,” Learner said. “It sends a message to polluting industries that the cop on the beat is looking the other way.”

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