Eroding the EPA

The enforcement wing of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is supposed to be America’s last line of defense against pollution and toxic waste. When all else fails - when laws and regulations aren’t enough to keep corporate polluters from pouring smog into our air and poison into our water - it’s the EPA’s eco-cops who are there for us, investigating violations and punishing offenders.

At least, that’s the theory. In practice, according to new Justice Department figures, the EPA is doing less than ever to tackle major polluters. The Washington Post reported this week that just 470 people were convicted of environmental crimes last year, down from 738 in 2001; in the same period, the number of new investigations opened by EPA officials fell by 38 percent.


Meanwhile, the agency’s core investigative team has dwindled to just 172 agents - fewer than the meager 200 officers required under environmental rules signed by George Bush, Sr. Adding insult to injury, the remaining agents complain that they are often diverted to other duties - such as bolstering EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson’s eight-man security detail - leaving even fewer staffers available for investigative work.

Laughably, the EPA claims that the enforcement slump is the consequence of its own success in persuading companies to comply with environmental regulations. So few violations now take place, officials argue, that there’s next to nothing left for EPA agents to investigate or enforce.

That cuts both ways: If you put fewer cops on the beat, you’re going to wind up uncovering fewer violations. Still, it may well be the case that companies are breaking fewer of the EPA’s rules these days; the agency’s rule-book has been so thoroughly bowdlerized by the White House that many onetime violations now slip unnoticed through specially crafted legislative loopholes.

In any event, the malaise in the EPA’s enforcement division runs deeper than mere regulatory sleight-of-hand: Under the Bush administration, the agency’s ability to enforce its own rules has been systematically eroded. Budgets and staffing levels have been slashed, the agency’s top ranks have been stuffed with business-friendly appointees, new policies have been crafted to prevent overworked agents from referring cases to state or federal prosecutors.

The result, inevitably, is that unscrupulous companies are freer than ever to continue polluting, with little fear of repercussions. With both public scrutiny and government oversight at a low point, it looks like they’ll continue to get away with it.