EPA’s ability to enforce anti-pollution laws is in danger under Trump’s presidency

“That office is the environmental cop on the beat and should be given more resources, not less.”

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate Scott Pruitt arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator-designate Scott Pruitt arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, to testify at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The Trump administration is reportedly weighing whether to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), according to sources who spoke with InsideEPA.

Closing the EPA’s independent enforcement arm would curtail the agency’s ability to independently enforce anti-pollution laws that aim to prevent companies from dumping toxic waste in rivers, for example, or release airborne chemicals near homes and schools.

“The EPA enforcement office is absolutely essential in ensuring that we are not breathing dirty air, drinking contaminated water and being exposed to high levels of pesticides,” said Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator and visiting scholar at Haub Law School at Pace University. “That office is the environmental cop on the beat and should be given more resources, not less.”

The Trump administration’s plans would result in moving the enforcement functions at OECA to other program offices at the EPA, according to last week’s reports. However, critics contend that such a move would subject EPA enforcement officials to more political pressure in program offices that would be under more direct oversight of Trump administration political appointees.

The rumored elimination of EPA’s enforcement office echoes proposals from conservative, anti-government organizations that have been highly influential in shaping Trump’s early policy initiatives. The administration is reportedly using the Heritage Foundation’s budget proposal, “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017,” as a starting point for its proposal for budget cuts at the EPA. The Heritage proposal would slash the EPA’s civil enforcement budget by 30 percent, cut its civil rights office budget in half, and fully eliminate its environmental justice programs.

The potential elimination of EPA’s enforcement office would also be in line with the recommendations of Myron Ebell, an outspoken climate denier who led Trump’s transition team for the EPA. If Ebell’s recommendations were implemented, the EPA workforce would be reduced by two-thirds from 15,000 to 5,000 and the agency’s $8.1 billion budget would be cut in half.

Gutting the EPA’s independent enforcement mechanisms would also be consistent with state-level actions taken by Trump’s nominee to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt dismantled his own office’s Environmental Protection Unit, which investigated environmental crimes. Between 2010 and 2015, Pruitt cut the office’s budget completely.

As the enforcement body of the EPA, the OECA manages civil and criminal enforcement of environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act. It enforces civil cases through settlements, monetary penalties, injunctions, and environmental improvement parties. The office also handles criminal cases through criminal penalties and incarceration for violations to environmental laws.

As a result of OECA’s enforcement actions in 2016, companies have invested more than $13.7 billion in pollution controls, and polluting parties have given more than $1 billion to clean up superfund sites. Enforcement actions have also garnered $6 billion in federal penalties and fines.

The EPA also uses OECA’s enforcement capabilities to support its environmental justice initiative, through which it works with the communities most vulnerable to violations of environmental and health protections. If the OECA were eliminated, these duties would likely fall to staff in program offices, who already have full time roles in policy development.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on Scott Pruitt’s nomination to be EPA administrator later this week.