April 20, 2020
CHICAGO — A new report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) found the U.S. EPA has backed off its enforcement responsibilities under the Clean Water Act for the Great Lakes region. In a multi-year analysis, ELPC found shrinking enforcement budgets, declining staff levels, and drops in enforcement with a corresponding rise in industrial polluters’ noncompliance with the Clean Water Act requirements.
ELPC reviewed and analyzed publicly-available national EPA data, as well as enforcement data for EPA’s Region 5 office, which oversees six Great Lakes states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. The report’s findings are being released just as U.S. EPA announced a nationwide relaxation of environmental enforcement covering industries and public facilities across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Trump Administration’s policies and budget actions are constricting EPA Region 5’s ability to fully and fairly enforce the Clean Water Act protections for safe, clean water in the Midwest,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director. “During the COVID-19 public health crisis, the Trump EPA is making a bad problem worse by stepping back from sound enforcement that is important for protecting public health and the Great Lakes, which the public overwhelmingly supports.”
Adjusting for inflation, federal appropriations for EPA’s enforcement activities and staff levels have been declining since 2012, but during the Obama administration, EPA sometimes spent more than its allocated budget. In contrast, the Trump administration’s EPA is now spending even less on enforcement and compliance activities than appropriated by Congress.
“With diminishing funds and declining staff, Region 5 career personnel are enforcing the Clean Water Act with one arm tied behind their back,” said Jeff Hammons, Staff Attorney and report co-author. “Career staff want to do their best work, but they’re hamstrung when Congress and the Trump administration give them less funding each year when adjusted for inflation.”
The report also found a sharp drop in what Clean Water Act violators are paying in penalties or spending on compliance under President Trump’s leadership.
“A minor slap on the wrist offers little deterrence for facilities that might violate the Clean Water Act in the future,” said Kiana Courtney, Associate Attorney at ELPC and report co-author. “Civil penalties or compliance costs for bad actors should be higher and be more than just the cost of doing business.”