October 07, 2020
DES MOINES, Iowa — 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 Region 7. 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 7 office, which oversees four states — Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska — and nine Tribal nations.
“The Trump Administration’s policies and budget actions are constricting EPA Region 7’s ability to fully and fairly enforce the Clean Water Act protections for safe, clean water in the Midwest,” said Josh Mandelbaum, ELPC Senior Attorney in Des Moines and report co-author. “At every step of the enforcement process from case initiations to fines and fees for violations, we are seeing less action to protect public health and Midwest waterways.”
“As the Trump EPA pulls back from environmental enforcement at the national level, it’s even more important for EPA Region 7 and other regional offices to fulfill their responsibilities for very effective Clean Water Act implementation and enforcement,” said Howard Learner, ELPC’s Executive Director.
The report is the second in a series analyzing Clean Water Act enforcements at regional EPA offices in the Midwest. ELPC found similar trends in a report released last spring on EPA Region 5, which oversees the Great Lakes region.
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.
While state pollution control agencies could potentially step in with beefed-up enforcement, that isn’t likely occurring in Iowa, which experienced the largest percentage reduction in its budget compared to other states in Region 7. Further, Iowa already had a significantly smaller budget than its Region 7 counterparts, despite having a larger population.
“With diminishing funds and declining staff, Region 7 career personnel are enforcing the Clean Water Act with one arm tied behind their back,” said Jeff Hammons, ELPC 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, ELPC Associate Attorney 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.”