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Under Trump, EPA slows actions against polluters

EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — The highway billboard at the entrance to town still displays a campaign photo of President Trump, who handily won the election across industrial Ohio. But a revolt is brewing in East Liverpool over Trump’s move to slow down the government’s policing of air and water pollution.

The City Council moved unanimously last month to send a protest letter to the Environmental Protection Agency about a hazardous waste incinerator near downtown.

Since Trump took office, the EPA has not moved to punish the plant’s owner, even after extensive evidence was assembled during the Obama administration that the plant had repeatedly, and illegally, released harmful pollutants into the air.

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“I don’t know where we go,” Councilor William Hogue, a retired social studies teacher, said in frustration to his fellow council members. “They haven’t resolved anything.”

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Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, has said the Trump administration’s high-profile regulatory rollback does not mean a free pass for violators of environmental laws. But the Trump administration has taken a turn in the enforcement of federal pollution laws.

An analysis of enforcement data by The New York Times shows that the administration has adopted a more lenient approach than the previous two administrations — Democratic and Republican — toward polluters like those in East Liverpool.

The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the EPA during the Trump, Obama, and Bush administrations.

During the first nine months under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under president Barack Obama’s first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under president George W. Bush’s during the same time period.

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In addition, the agency sought civil penalties of about $50.4 million from polluters for cases initiated under Trump. Adjusted for inflation, that is about 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought and about 70 percent of what the Bush administration sought over the same time period.

The EPA, turning to one of its most powerful enforcement tools, also can force companies to retrofit their factories to cut pollution. Under Trump, those demands have dropped sharply.

The agency has demanded about $1.2 billion worth of such fixes, known as injunctive relief, in cases initiated during the nine-month period, which, adjusted for inflation, is about 12 percent of what was sought under Obama and 48 percent under Bush.

Resolving complicated pollution cases can take time, and the EPA said it remained committed to ensuring companies obeyed environmental laws.

“EPA and states work together to find violators and bring them back into compliance, and to punish intentional polluters,” the agency said in a statement. Officials said Pruitt was less fixated on seeking large penalties than some of his predecessors were.

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“We focus more on bringing people back into compliance than bean counting,” the statement said.

‘quote or liftout’

Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Pruitt’s team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives.

The documents, which were reviewed by The Times, indicate that EPA enforcement officers across the country no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests, known as requests for information, without receiving permission from Washington. The tests are essential to building a case against polluters.

At at least two of the agency’s most aggressive regional offices, requests for information involving companies suspected of polluting have fallen significantly under Trump, according to internal EPA data.

In the last two complete fiscal years of the Obama administration, the EPA’s office in Chicago sent requests for testing that covered an average of 50 facilities per year, or about 4.2 each month. By comparison, after the policy changes, one such request for a single facility was made in the subsequent four-month period.

The enforcement slowdown has been compounded by the departure of more than 700 employees at the EPA since Trump’s election, many of them via buyouts intended to reduce the agency’s size.

Separately, Pruitt’s team has told officials and industry representatives in Missouri, North Dakota, and other states that EPA enforcement officers will stand down on some pollution cases, according to agency documents.

The retrenchment is said to be part of a nationwide handoff of many enforcement duties to state authorities, an effort Pruitt calls cooperative federalism but critics say is an industry-friendly way to ease up on polluters.

The Times asked top EPA enforcement officials from the Obama and Bush administrations to review The Times’ data, analysis, and methodology. They said the slowdown signaled a sea change in enforcement under Trump.

“Those kinds of numbers are stark,” said Granta Nakayama, a lawyer who served in the Bush administration as assistant administrator for the EPA’s enforcement office and who now represents companies facing EPA enforcement actions for the law firm King & Spalding.

“If you’re not filing cases, the cop’s not on the beat,” he said. “Or has the cop been taken off the beat?”

Some enforcement experts suggested that the EPA under Pruitt might have filed fewer cases because it was going after larger penalties. But according to the Times analysis, most of the top penalties were smaller than those in the previous two administrations.