A shrinking Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is increasingly failing to hold major polluters accountable, a new report says, leaving communities around the country at risk from dangerous contaminants.
The Environmental Integrity Project analysis shows a long-term decline in enforcement actions, and then a collapse over the last two years under the Trump administration. The number of inspections and investigations conducted by EPA staff last year, for example, is nearly half what they were in 2006, and is at the lowest level since at least 2001.
The report cites 10 examples across the country, including two in Minnesota: a taconite ore processing plant in Forbes, Minn., and a lead battery recycling operation in Eagan. Both emitted dangerous chemicals, but the EPA didn’t take enforcement actions, the authors say.
“We’re finding examples of enforcement cases that were set up by the last administration that are just languishing, they’re just sitting there,” said Eric Schaeffer, a former head of the EPA’s civil enforcement division who co-founded the Environmental Integrity Project. “By now, these things should have crossed the finish line.”
Schaeffer was scheduled to present the findings Tuesday at a hearing before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
The report says the EPA opened fewer criminal environmental enforcement last year than it has in nearly two decades; the number of civil enforcement cases initiated and concluded dropped by nearly half over the last 10 years. Comparing the first two years of the last three administrations, the report found the amount of air pollution reduced via civil judicial cases under the Trump Administration was 64 percent less than under President Barack Obama, and 12 percent less than under President George W. Bush.
An EPA spokesman said the agency hadn’t yet seen the embargoed report.
“The agency is committed to the vigorous enforcement of our nation’s environmental laws and inaccurate suggestions to the contrary only embolden noncompliance with the law,” EPA spokesman James Hewitt said Tuesday.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Environmental Integrity Project examined 20 years of EPA data and court records.
The report spotlights 10 serious pollution cases across the country it says are still awaiting some type of EPA enforcement. All the cases, it said, involved the release of “substantial quantities of pollutants that include carcinogens or deadly toxins, such as lead.”
The two in Minnesota are United Taconite’s ore processing plant in Forbes, and Gopher Resource’s lead battery recycling operation in Eagan. Examples elsewhere include a Dow Chemical Co. facility in northern California and Denka Peformance Elastomer, a chemical plant in Louisiana.
All 10 examples, the report notes, involve facilities operating in low- or moderate-income neighborhoods.
“If any of these 10 plants were in any proximity to the corporate lawyers that live in Bethesda here, there would be outrage,” Schaeffer said.
The EPA notified United Taconite in 2014 about multiple violations at its Forbes operation involving the releases of large quantities of hazardous air pollutants at various times from 2008 through 2013, including soot and toxic metals and arsenic, a known carcinogen. The company agreed to pay a $50,000 state fine for dust violations, the report said, but the EPA did not impose penalties.
Reached Monday, United Taconite’s owner, Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., said the report is inaccurate. Company spokeswoman Patricia Persico described the pollution as an “old” matter than has been resolved.
Persico said the company recently signed a consent decree with the EPA to pay $50,000 in civil penalties, injunctive relief and $488,000 for a “supplemental environmental project,” to resolve the violations. The agreement has not yet been filed in court, she said, but filing is “imminent.” The company could not provide a copy of the settlement.
Schaeffer described the penalties for the United Taconite pollution as “very small” given the length of time United Taconite was in violation, and the much larger potential penalty the EPA could have imposed under the federal Clean Air Act.
Gopher Resource in Eagan has been subject to multiple administrative orders over the years from both the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the EPA. Still, when the EPA notified the hazardous materials recycler in 2015 that it had violated federal standards for hazardous air pollutants several times in the previous year — sending a toxic mix of contaminants including dioxins and lead into the air — the EPA did not follow up with penalties, the report said.
Gopher Resource did not respond Monday to calls for comment on the report.
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesman Dave Verhasselt said that the agency is not aware of any ongoing investigations involving either of the two companies in Minnesota, and that it would decline to discuss the report.