Rise in E.P.A. Penalties Against Polluters Comes With an Asterisk

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday released data showing a large increase in penalties against polluters, as well $20 billion in commitments from companies to correct problems that have caused environmental damage.

“A strong enforcement program is essential to achieving positive health and environmental outcomes,” Susan Bodine, head of the enforcement division at the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement.

The data from the E.P.A. represented activity during the government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, meaning the totals included the final three and half months of the Obama administration, when some of the E.P.A.’s biggest cases were settled. The data also reflected cases that were resolved during the Trump administration but had been initiated and largely handled under President Obama.

The New York Times in December did its own analysis of the E.P.A.’s civil enforcement action initiated in the first nine months under Scott Pruitt, the administrator appointed by President Trump. During that time frame, the agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters, which, adjusted for inflation, was about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought in the same time period under its first E.P.A. director and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought in the same period.

The tally released Thursday showed a total of $1.6 billion in civil judicial and administrative penalties — money paid to punish polluters — the second largest amount in the last decade, with the single biggest amount of that coming from Volkswagen, which agreed to pay a $1.45 billion penalty at the end of the Obama administration. The prior peak was in fiscal year 2016, when BP agreed to pay $5.7 billion in penalties for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

In her statement, Ms. Bodine, who became enforcement director in December, said that the agency had focused its enforcement efforts during fiscal 2017 on speeding up the cleanup of contaminated sites, “deterring noncompliance” as well as a philosophy of “cooperative federalism,” which has meant turning over enforcement responsibilities to states.

The $20 billion in commitments by polluters to correct problems was up from $14 billion in 2016, the E.P.A. said.

But the analysis by The Times showed that during the first nine months of Mr. Pruitt’s tenure, demands for such fixes dropped sharply. The agency sought about $1.2 billion worth of fixes, known as injunctive relief, in civil cases initiated during that period. Adjusted for inflation, that was about 12 percent of what was sought under Mr. Obama and 48 percent under Mr. Bush. Overall, The Times’s analysis said, cases started under Mr. Pruitt’s leadership dropped significantly from both of the previous administrations.

Cynthia Giles, who was the assistant administrator for the E.P.A.’s enforcement office during the Obama administration, said the data released Thursday should not be interpreted as the Trump administration being tough on polluters.

“Nearly all of the large cases included in E.P.A.’s annual enforcement report were essentially over before the new administration arrived at E.P.A.,” said Ms. Giles, who had reviewed The Times’s analysis. “Without an unprecedented disavowal of an already negotiated and public agreement, there is nothing Administrator Pruitt’s team could have done to change the outcome. In no sense do these cases reflect the intentions or actions of the new administration.”

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/business/epa-penalties-polluters.html by ERIC LIPTON and DANIELLE IVORY