04:02 - Source: CNN
Pesticide & testimony: More controversies at EPA

Story highlights

The Trump administration collected $12 million in civil penalties compared to Obama's $36 million

Lawsuits filed by the EPA against polluters also dipped by 24 percent

Washington CNN  — 

The amount of money the Environmental Protection Agency is penalizing polluters they’ve sued for breaching federal regulations has plummeted by 60% under President Donald Trump, a report released Thursday has found.

Between January and July, fines resulting from settlements have been significantly lighter on polluters’ pocketbooks on average compared to previous administrations in the same time period, according to a report released by the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental watchdog nonprofit group.

EIP found that between Trump’s first day in office through the end of July, the Department of Justice collected a total of $12 million in civil penalties from companies sued for breaking pollution control laws. During President Barack Obama’s first seven months, his administration collected $36 million in penalties. President George W. Bush’s administration collected $30 million and President Bill Clinton collected $25 million, according to EIP’s analysis, which is not adjusted for inflation.

Lawsuits filed by the EPA against polluters breaching a variety of federal regulations have also dipped by 24%, the report found. The report additionally found that so far, the EPA under Trump has filed 26 civil lawsuits against polluters, a significant decrease compared to the 34 cases filed under Obama, 31 cases under Bush and 45 cases from Clinton in the same time period.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has criticized Obama’s EPA for its “attitude that the states are a vessel of federal will.”

“They were aggressive about dictating to the states and displacing their authority and letting it be known they didn’t trust the states,” Pruitt told The Wall Street Journal in February.

The EIP analysis is based on public records of settlements that resolve violations of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, not including Superfund cases.

“President Trump campaigned on a promise of ‘law and order,’ but apparently law enforcement for big polluters is not what he had in mind,” said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of EIP and former director of civil enforcement at EPA under Clinton and Bush. “The early returns show fewer cases with smaller penalties for violations of environmental law. If this drop-off in environmental enforcement continues, it will leave more people breathing more air pollution or swimming in waterways with more waste.”

Patrick Traylor, the deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, refuted the conclusion of the report, calling it “unfair” due to the fact that the data provides only a snapshot of trends that vary over time.

“It can take months or years before a consent decree can be lodged. This ‘snapshot’ assertions say much more about enforcement actions commenced in the later years of the Obama administration than it does about actions taken in the beginning of the Trump administration,” he said. “Despite this unfair report, EPA is committed to enforcing environmental laws to correct noncompliance and promote cleanup of contaminated sites.”

Countering fines all together

Not all groups believe that the EPA should be playing the role of prosecutor. At least one group argues that issuing monetary penalties is isn’t about enforcement but instead is about benefiting the EPA.

The Competitive Enterprises Institute, a nonprofit public policy organization dedicated to advancing conservative principles, released a report Tuesday arguing that the EPA needs to put a complete end to the practice of “using legal settlements to create political slush funds.”

In the CEI report, the group argues that the EPA under Obama established “a pattern of making industrial policy through legal settlements” and “abused its regulatory enforcement authority to create its own de facto power of the purse by leveraging enforcement actions to drive spending in support of policies that have not been enacted by Congress.”

The CEI report points to electric cars as an example. Although Congress has in the past subsidized renewable energy and electric vehicles, the report notes that since 2005, “the EPA – assisted by the Justice Department – has used settlements in 18 Clean Air Act enforcement actions to move $1.55 billion in private-sector funds to renewable energy, energy efficiency and electric vehicle infrastructure projects without congressional authorization.”

The author of the report argued that the Trump administration should pull back even more in its EPA lawsuits.

“While the Trump administration has taken the right steps to put an end to this attempt by the EPA to act with the power of the purse that it doesn’t have, more can be done both by the agency and Congress to ensure this political behavior doesn’t return,” said CEI senior fellow and report author William Yeatman in a statement.

Pruitt has echoed similar remarks over ending a practice colloquially named “sue and settle,” which refers to when federal agencies invite a lawsuit from an outside group with the intent to settle in mutual favor– therefore setting both group’s political agenda.

“There is a time and place to sometimes resolve litigation. But don’t use the judicial process to bypass accountability,” Pruitt said in the February Wall Street Journal interview.

He added, “Regulation through litigation is simply wrong.”

CNN’s Rene Marsh contributed to this report