Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt in July 2017. Photo: Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

By Timothy Puko
5 September 2017

WASHINGTON (The Wall Street Journal) – Nearly 400 workers have left the Environmental Protection Agency in recent days, the agency said Tuesday, a wave of departures that soon could take the agency’s staffing to its lowest point in almost 30 years.

The departures come primarily from buyouts offered as part of President Donald Trump’s  efforts to fulfill a campaign promise of “tremendous cutting” at the EPA. His budget proposal in March suggested a 31% funding cut that would result in approximately 3,200 fewer jobs at the agency.

The voluntary buyouts were offered in June to more than 1,200 workers. Almost a third of those eligible took the buyout and, coupled with a dozen retirements on 31 August 2017, the agency trimmed its staff by about 2.5% in less than a week. Several dozen more workers could retire or opt to take the buyout later this month, which would cut EPA’s total number of employees to almost 14,400 workers, the lowest since 1988. Two years ago it had more than 15,500 employees nationwide. […]

Some of the agency’s critics among employee groups and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are skeptical of the agency’s ability to meet its regulatory responsibilities as it shrinks, while others question whether buyouts are an effective use of tax money.

Mr. Pruitt hasn’t laid out any plan for how to reshape the agency or its priorities, making it more difficult to improve its performance with fewer resources, said Jeff Ruch, executive director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility [PEER], which represents government employees in environmental fields. It wasn’t immediately clear how the departures broke down among different departments within the EPA.

Asked about whether the cuts would hamper the ongoing response to Hurricane Harvey, an EPA spokeswoman said agency leaders designed the buyout plan so it wouldn’t leave them with too few people to respond to any unforeseen natural disasters. [more]

Hundreds of EPA Workers Leave in Recent Days

Washington, DC, 24 August 2017 (PEER) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fewer than half of the criminal special agents on the job than it had a dozen years ago, according to EPA statistics released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These thinning ranks of white collar investigators are opening a shrinking number of anti-pollution cases and obtaining fewer convictions.

EPA figures obtained by PEER through the Freedom of Information Act indicate that –

  • The number of special agents inside the EPA Criminal Investigation Division (CID) has dropped by more than half since 2003, with a current total of only 147 agents, well below the minimum of 200 agents required by the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990;
  • New criminal cases opened by CID have plummeted, falling by nearly two-thirds just since 2012. The current fiscal year is on pace to open just 120 new cases, a modern low; and
  • Successful criminal anti-pollution prosecutions are also slumping, down to little more than half of convictions won in 2014.

“This evaporation of criminal enforcement is snowballing in that fewer agents generate fewer cases leading to ever-fewer convictions down the road,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The spigot sustaining complex corporate anti-pollution prosecutions – which take years from genesis to fruition – is being turned off at the source.”

Enforcement against criminal violators of the Clean Water and the Clean Air Acts – EPA’s two most active dockets – has been especially hard hit. The number of new clean water cases opened this year is more than two-thirds below those opened in 2012, with clean air cases plunging by more than three-quarters annually from those opened five years ago. Pruitt’s promised regulatory rollbacks in both areas will likely drive enforcement even lower, as convictions will be harder to obtain with standards in flux.

“These dismal figures do not reflect further declines we can expect from policies pursued by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt,” added Ruch, noting that agent counts do not include end-of-fiscal-year buy-outs slated for next month. “Pruitt’s known aversion to punishing corporate polluters threatens to hollow out what remains of EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division.”

A disinvestment in criminal enforcement began in Obama’s second term when EPA embraced a plan called “Next Generation Compliance” in 2014. This approach relied upon industry electronically self-reporting emissions. As the VW auto emissions scandal underlines, trusting corporate compliance without verifying can be monumentally detrimental. Nonetheless, Administrator Pruitt appears to be going further, urging significant budget cuts for both EPA’s criminal and civil enforcement arms, as well as deferring to states to lead anti-pollution prosecutions, even while urging cuts in EPA grants supporting these state environmental enforcement programs.

“Scott Pruitt’s tenure may usher in the golden age of citizen enforcement of environmental laws,” concluded Ruch, pointing to the citizen suit provisions in most major eco-statutes. “With the abdication of EPA, citizens, states, and localities will have to take public health protection into their own hands.”

EPA criminal pollution enforcement withering away



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