The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) criminal enforcement numbers have take a major hit over the past few years. A new study conducted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found that the agency had the lowest criminal case numbers since the late 1980s.

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Last year, the EPA only filed 166 criminal referrals. These referrals are sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution, and those numbers were adjusted to account for the latest government shutdown. As a reference point, the EPA filed close to 60 percent more referrals in 2011 and over 72 percent more in 1998.

The rate of new criminal referrals for the 2019 fiscal year, which started in November, is already at a slower pace than last year. So far, the EPA has only filed 24 criminal enforcement referrals, and the government shutdown is expected to affect those numbers even more moving forward.

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Even more concerning is the fact that only 62 of the referrals in 2018 ended with convictions. That is less than any year after 1992 and illustrates a dire need for greater efficiency within the EPA. PEER argues that the Trump administration is one of the biggest reasons behind the low numbers of criminal referrals.

“These figures indicate that the Trump plan to cripple EPA is working,” Kyla Bennett, the director of science policy at PEER, explained. “Not enforcing our anti-pollution laws steadily transforms them into dead letters.”

The decline in criminal enforcement has also led to a drop in the number of agents who are assigned to such cases. In the spring of 2018, the EPA employed 140 special agents to handle pollution cases in its Criminal Investigation Division (CID) and that number has already decreased to 130. According to the U.S. Pollution Prosecution Act of 1990, the EPA is supposed to have 200 CID agents on staff at any given time.

With EPA criminal enforcement at historic lows, the main concern is that the agency lacks effective means of prosecuting polluters, which will likely lead to an increase in violations over the next few years.


Image via USEPA