Skyhobo/iStock(WASHINGTON) — A Democrat-led committee is set to question a top Environmental Protection Agency official on whether the country's top environmental agency has gone easier on polluters under the Trump administration.
Critics say the Trump administration is doing less to enforce environmental laws than under other presidents, citing lower numbers of inspections, fewer new investigations and enforcement cases, less money collected in penalties and a large number of enforcement staff that have left the agency in the last year.
"Essentially what the EPA has done is take the cop off the beat and protect polluters rather than the average American, and we're going to change that," Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said when he announced a hearing on EPA's enforcement record.
The EPA said it still enforces environmental laws, and Acting EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler pushed back on this criticism in his confirmation hearing to become administrator last month. He said a lot of the criticism has been misleading, and that, among other things, the EPA opened more criminal enforcement cases in 2017 than in previous years. EPA data also show more facilities self-reported violations last year.
"We are working very hard on compliance assurance, and I think the agency has for a number of years and I think the more compliance assurance that we have the fewer enforcement actions that we need to take," he said in his testimony.
Under Trump, the EPA has changed the way it talks about enforcement to focus on compliance, partly because of the administration's emphasis on working closely with states and tribes to create and enforce laws instead of mandate rules from the top.
The EPA said officials could work with states and industries to ensure they comply with environmental laws before they have to start a formal enforcement action, which could involve a lengthy legal process to settle the violations and force companies to pay expensive penalties.
One of those former officials said states need the threat of EPA enforcement to motivate companies to resolve problems quickly and that the federal government could impose higher penalties to pay for cleanup than states.
When authorities determine a company has violated an environmental law by releasing too much pollution or mishandling chemicals, they can agree to resolve that problem themselves, but critics have said some situations need more urgent action, especially when the violation endangers public health.
Eric Schaeffer, who led the EPA's civil enforcement office under Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, said he's concerned the agency's emphasis on partnership will take away the threat of federal enforcement as a deterrent, which would make it easier for companies to become more lax about environmental rules.
"If the only thing that ever happened when you got pulled over is you got a warning ticket, that's sort of a different situation for drivers," he said in an interview.
The head of the EPA's enforcement and compliance office, Assistant Administrator Susan Bodine, will face questions about how the EPA has handled these cases under President Donald Trump in a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, followed by a panel of former EPA officials and experts.
The administration recently announced a high-profile enforcement case against Fiat Chrysler for cheating on fuel emissions tests, similar to the Volkswagen case settled in 2017.
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