The people of Eden, North Carolina were unware that a company was storing huge quantities of metal-laced waste on the banks of the Dan River. They only found out on February 2, 2014, when there was a massive coal ash spill, pouring tens of thousands of tons of waste into the river, which is used as a drinking water source. EPA enforcement stepped in to order that the site be cleaned up, and brought criminal charges when EPA discovered that the company had ignored its own employees’ warnings about the spill risk for years. This is just one example of the thousands of enforcement actions EPA takes every year to protect our air, water, and land.
But now the Trump administration plans to dismantle the environmental enforcement program that held bad actors accountable in North Carolina. The President’s plan has multiple tactics but one goal: gut enforcement of the laws that protect us. Tactic A: a stunning reduction to EPA’s enforcement budget. This ignores the fact that EPA staff declined by 15% over the last eight years and there are today fewer EPA enforcers than when the office was created in 1995. Now, this administration proposes to cut the enforcement budget by another 25%. That won’t just dramatically reduce EPA enforcement, it will effectively eliminate it, by reducing to zero the resources available for the remaining staff to do inspections, monitor pollution, and actually bring cases. Tactic B: direct EPA enforcement staff to stop enforcing the law in states that have joint authority with EPA. Who thinks that states that already were not doing the enforcement job will somehow now find the resources and the political will to take on powerful industries? Tactic C: abolish EPA’s enforcement office and distribute enforcement responsibilities around the agency, a time-tested way of making the enforcers too weak to be effective.
Any one of these tactics would be a fatal blow to environmental enforcement.
EPA’s civil and criminal enforcement cases span a broad range. They include smaller actions with big local impacts that protect local drinking water or address risks to children from exposure to unlawful pesticides or lead. And EPA has the expertise and staying power to take on the biggest multinational corporations that threaten public health, like the recent multi-billion dollar settlements with BP (Deepwater Horizon) and Volkswagen that are returning billions of dollars to states to address serious pollution problems.
Only the willfully naïve believe that laws enforce themselves.
In addition to directly stopping dangerous pollution, EPA’s enforcement also makes companies think twice about cutting corners or deliberately putting public health at risk. The environmental enforcement program is a big part of the reason that Americans do not suffer today from the high levels of polluted air, water, and land that once plagued our nation. Other countries, which may have strong standards but don’t ensure that companies actually comply, are not as fortunate. We still have serious pollution problems to tackle, but we have made tremendous progress. And EPA has shown that tough enforcement and better public health are not just compatible with, but help promote, strong economic growth.
EPA enforcement doesn’t just protect the public from dirty air and water, it also protects responsible companies that play by the rules. Creating a level playing field, so that industries don’t lose competitive edge by doing the right thing, has long been central to the enforcement mission. The Volkswagen case was a victory for clean air, but it also vindicated the compliance of other car companies that met the emission standards. And the states know that having EPA to back them up is part of what makes their own enforcement possible: companies recognize that if they don’t work with their states they will have to answer to EPA.
Only the willfully naïve believe that laws enforce themselves. We know from hard experience that they do not. Americans expect government to protect the air they breathe and the water they drink. Those expectations will be shattered if the Trump administration has its way.