The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for protecting the Midwest under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and other environmental standards. Diligent monitoring and tough-but-fair enforcement are necessary to protect the public and our natural resources from environmental degradation. In the Midwest, EPA’s Region 5 office covers six states: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and thirty-five Native American Tribes, and its Region 7 office covers Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska and nine Native American Tribes. Unfortunately, because of both political leadership’s budget cuts and apparent lack of commitment, EPA has stepped back from its responsibility, leaving our communities vulnerable.
After New York Times reporting showed EPA enforcement rates had slowed in the early months of the Trump administration, EPA’s official response in December 2017 was that “there is not only no reduction in EPA’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws, but a greater emphasis on compliance in the first place.” Unfortunately, the data does not support that assertion. Declining enforcement coincides with a rise in noncompliance with the Clean Water Act in Regions 5 & 7, and other metrics confirm EPA is dropping the ball when it comes to protecting the Midwest.
ELPC dug into public records to examine the decline in Clean Water Act enforcement in several Great Lakes and Great Plains states. After months of detailed analysis, the team released a report in April 2020 that highlighted some concerning metrics in Region 5, and a follow-up report from October 2020 showed trends in Region 7. We found shrinking funds, plummeting staff levels, declining enforcement, and a corresponding rise in significant noncompliance with the Clean Water Act. The reports also featured facilities with hundreds of reported permit violations affecting Midwestern waterways, where EPA has taken no formal enforcement action. Without a strong expectation of environmental enforcement, facilities are more likely to violate the law and avoid accountability. ELPC will continue to hold EPA and states accountable to protect safe, clean water.
ELPC monitors the EPA docket for fines and penalties substantially below fair and reasonable amounts for air and water law violations. Where EPA agrees to such settlements, ELPC will blow the whistle and seek to intervene to advocate for more appropriate fines and penalties for violators. In addition to reviewing penalty amounts, ELPC also monitors for consistent misuse of expedited settlement agreements (ESAs) by EPA.
ELPC steps up to protect Midwestern communities from pollution by bringing attention to bad actors, speaking out when official enforcement is insufficient, or taking polluters to court directly. For example, our monitoring team had an eye on a steel mill in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, where years of clean water violations had prompted no EPA enforcement. When a dangerous spill killed fish and shuttered beaches along Lake Michigan in 2019, we had data on hand to show this spill was part of a long-term pattern. ELPC and the Hoosier Environmental Council sued ArcelorMittal to clean up their act.