Polluter pays? Not so much

Corporate polluters spewing filth into your air and water? Don’t worry - the Environmental Protection Agency has your back. Why, only this month the agency imposed a $1.25 million penalty on a developer who bulldozed and diverted a five-mile section of Arizona’s Santa Cruz river, one of the largest such fines in EPA history. “Today's action contributes to EPA's record-shattering enforcement results," bragged Granta Nakayama, who runs the EPA’s enforcement office. "To date, EPA has concluded enforcement actions requiring polluters to spend an estimated $11 billion on pollution controls, clean-up and environmental projects, an all time record for EPA. After these activities are completed, EPA expects annual pollution reductions of more than three billion pounds."

Sounds good, right? The only problem is that according to a new Government Accountability Office report, the EPA has actually slashed its enforcement program in recent years, while using dubious accounting practices to conceal the fact from the public. Between 1998 and 2007, the GAO reports, EPA enforcement has slumped from $240.6 million to just $137.7 million. “The bottom line is that environmental enforcement has significantly declined since the Bush administration took office," said Rep. John Dingell, who requested the GAO report. “Under this administration, there have been fewer cases brought, lower penalties assessed, and a decrease in fines collected.”

To make matters worse, the EPA has adopted dodgy bookkeeping practices that significantly overstate their actual enforcement activities. Instead of reporting the fines actually paid by polluters, the EPA has taken to declaring instead the amount it initially asks polluters to pay. That makes a big difference; in recent years, many of the EPA’s largest fines have taken the form of default judgments, imposed at uncontested court hearings, on which the agency admits it has no real expectation of ever being able to collect. In just three recent cases, for example, the EPA won unenforceable default judgments totaling $227.2 million - more than the agency’s total penalty charges for 2007.

The EPA says that reporting the fines that polluters actually pay, as opposed to the penalties it assesses, would be less likely to deter companies from polluting our air, earth and water. But the agency’s tangled book-keeping makes it all but impossible for us to know whether the EPA’s enforcement program is currently providing any significant degree of deterrence. After all, issuing fines doesn’t mean a thing if the offender never pays up.

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