U.S. EPA denies being soft on polluters as Democrats question enforcement

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement chief on Tuesday pushed back on “the myth” that the regulator is soft on polluters as Democratic lawmakers pressed her on the big decline in civil penalties and site inspections last year.

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Susan Bodine, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), testified at a House energy committee panel, where Democratic lawmakers pressed her on significant drops in inspections, penalty collections and referrals of cases to the Department of Justice.

The EPA's annual report released earlier this month showed it leveled $69 million in civil penalties against polluters and conducted 10,612 site inspections in the 2018 fiscal year, the lowest in at least a decade for both measures.

But Bodine said in her testimony that despite these numbers, EPA is achieving results by focusing on compliance over enforcement, encouraging companies to self-report violations and make compliance and enforcement processes more efficient.

“I am pushing back on the myth,” she told the panel. “A strong environment program doesn’t mean we have to collect a particular dollar amount or pick up a number of penalties.”

The hearing comes as Democrats, now in control of Congress after last November’s elections, heap scrutiny on the Trump administration over its efforts to unwind environmental regulation to favor business.

Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette, chair of the oversight subcommittee of the energy panel, said the drop-off in major enforcement metrics means pollution will increase.

“I see an agency sitting on its hands, an agency that gives polluters a pass,” she said.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone said the Democrats’ first oversight hearing on EPA enforcement questioned Bodine on how low staffing in the agency’s compliance division was impacting the agency.

The OECA saw a net loss of 131 full-time employees, 17.8 percent of its staff, over the last two years, according to EPA data.

Bodine said she plans to hire more enforcement officials this year.

Bodine several times said that the number and amount of penalties are not good metrics to measure OECA’s work, and said that annual civil penalties can be highly variable year to year - with some years significantly higher after major cases like BP Plc’s settlement for its 2010 offshore oil spill are factored in.

Lawmakers pushed back on that assertion, saying that even when removing large penalties as outliers, the results were still lower than other years.

“These are really low numbers — some of the lowest numbers we’ve seen in a long time,” said Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes.

The Environmental Integrity Project, led by former EPA civil enforcement director Eric Schaeffer, said the decline in enforcement and inspections posed a disproportionate threat to poor communities located near big infrastructure like oil refineries and power plants.

“Those cutbacks are leaving communities – including those with high poverty levels and African-American or Latino neighborhoods - exposed to public health risks, while letting polluters off the hook for serious violations of the law,” Schaeffer said. He will also testify at the hearing on Tuesday.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; editing by Lisa Shumaker and Marguerita Choy