Trump Track: Polluters Play?

On December 11, 2017, the NY Times’ headline read: Under Trump, E.P.A. Has Slowed Actions Against Polluters, and Put Limits on Enforcement Officers. The article reviews EPA enforcement during the first nine months of the Trump Administration. The writers cite not only statistical comparisons with the first year of the Bush and Obama EPAs, but also quote an internal enforcement memorandum, interviews with current and former EPA staff, and residents at a facility under investigation in Ohio.

In a sidebar explaining their methods, the writers acknowledge that environmental investigations can take years to ripen into a settlement, and a few major settlements can shift numbers markedly. In addition to the factors cited in the sidebar, it is my observation that many experienced EPA personnel will retire rather than fight what they perceive as a hostile administration, especially following several years of continuing cutbacks in funding by an equally hostile Congress. To the extent that has occurred, it could bias first year numbers downward, as case management shifts and personnel are stretched thin. In fact, a letter is now circulating that asks incumbents to stay the course, which mirrors efforts during other administrations to encourage incumbents in environmental, civil rights and other politicized areas to stay rather than leave or “retire in place.”

What It Means

The Trump Administration came into office promising to rein in what it perceived to be overly aggressive environmental enforcement. The information cited in the Times article is certainly consistent with what Trump promised. However, it may also reflect other factors, such as an aging work force, and start-up delays, as much as budgeting and management priorities. The numbers after a second year of control will be more obviously meaningful. But the combination of numbers and other facts make a convincing case that the environmental enforcement record of this administration should continue to be examined.