The Environmental Protection Agency, as well as its regional arm in New England, has sharply reduced the number of cases it has prosecuted of those who violate federal environmental laws, according to a new analysis of the agency’s enforcement.
The EPA made 166 referrals to the Justice Department for prosecution in 2018, the lowest total in 30 years and fewer than half the number of referrals made in 2012, according to figures obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group based in Massachusetts.
Of those referrals, none were made in New England.
The first seven months of 2019 have resulted in 102 referrals, setting a pace for a 25-year low, according to the group. There have been two referrals made in New England over that time.
Moreover, the 78 pollution cases that the Justice Department prosecuted in 2018 were the fewest since 1994, and half as many as it brought in 2013, the group found. So far this year, the department has prosecuted 36 cases, putting it on track for the fewest cases ever prosecuted.
The 62 convictions that the department won in 2018 was the lowest total since 1995 and less than half the number won in 2014, the group said. The department has won 39 convictions in the first half of the year.
“These enforcement numbers are alarming and likely to get worse,” Tim Whitehouse, a former EPA enforcement attorney, said in a statement provided by the group, known as PEER.
Fewer referrals for prosecution probably mean fewer prosecutions and convictions in the coming years, he said.
“If pollution enforcement is viewed as a pipeline, under Trump the intake valve is being shut closed,” he said.
Ken Labbe, an EPA spokesman, disputed the group’s numbers, saying the Justice Department had charged 105 last year and 92 defendants so far this year with violating environmental laws. The government has won 66 of this year’s cases, an 86 percent conviction rate, he noted.
“While the absolute number of cases opened and the number of defendants charged has been declining since 2011, the EPA is focused on the most significant violations of environmental laws,” Labbe said.
Jeff Ruch, a director at the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said the group based its analysis on EPA statistics.
“Our point is that criminal enforcement activity is declining at EPA during this administration as measured by available indices,” he said.
Cuts to environmental enforcement are familiar to residents of Massachusetts. In recent years, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s enforcement of air and water quality rules fell sharply, as the agency’s workforce shrank by nearly a third.
From 2006 to 2016, enforcement actions for serious violations of environmental laws in Massachusetts fell by more than half, as inspections declined. Fines collected plummeted during the same period by nearly 75 percent, according to a Globe review of state records.
The lack of federal enforcement of environmental laws comes as the number of agents at the EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division remains below the 200 required by the 1990 US Pollution Prosecution Act, said Kyla Bennett, the advocacy group’s science policy director and an attorney formerly with the EPA.
EPA officials said they employ 164 agents in the United States. Of those, five are in New England, according to the group.
“Not only are there fewer pollution cops on the beat, but under new policies, Trump appointees make the call on whether criminal cases go forward,” she said.
EPA officials now offer corporate polluters help in returning to compliance before penalizing them, she said.
“Corporate friends of this administration carry a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card in their back pockets,” she said.
Labbe said “such inflammatory rhetoric may actually embolden criminal conduct under the mistaken belief that environmental crimes will not be detected and prosecuted.”