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Study Proves EPA Toothless Since Bush Takeover

by Katherine Stapp

The Great Bush Environmental Giveaway
(IPS) NEW YORK -- A new study bolsters charges by environmentalists that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has drastically cut back its pursuit of polluters.

Using EPA data, researchers in the office of Democratic Congressman Edward J. Markey found that the Bush administration has brought nearly 50 percent fewer administrative actions against polluters than were undertaken under former president Bill Clinton.

Titled 'Does Honesty Pay at the Bush EPA?', the study reviewed 20,000 EPA actions against polluters in the last 13 months of the Clinton presidency and the first 14 months under Bush.

Fines against polluters fell by 80 percent under Bush, from about $845 million to $165 million, according to the study.

"I am concerned that the dramatic reduction in numbers and settlements for EPA administrative actions taken during the Bush administration could lead polluting companies to conclude that it pays to pollute and that there is no incentive to stop," Markey said.

"Businesses that fully comply with federal environmental laws are harmed when those who fail to comply are not subject to enforcement action," added the Massachusetts congressman.

An EPA spokesperson responded that the study was flawed.

"The report is an incomplete picture, since it only talks about administrative actions and fails to include the civil/judicial actions with the Department of Justice, which frequently involves major penalties and major environmental corrective action," said Teresa Libera.

"For example, administrative injunctive relief totalled $488 million for fiscal year 2001, whereas judicial injunctive relief totalled $3.9 billion," she said.

Libera also said that the EPA forced violators to spend nearly twice as much on installing new pollution controls and conducting cleanups -- from $2.6 billion in 2000 to $4.4 billion in 2001.

But a former EPA official familiar with the Markey study said that fines and lawsuits culminating in 2001 were really the product of actions taken under the Clinton administration, since the cases can take years to resolve.

Eric Schaeffer worked at the EPA for 12 years, rising through the ranks to become the director of the Office of Regulatory Enforcement. He quit last March to protest the Bush administration's attempts to weaken provisions of the Clean Air Act.

Schaeffer now runs the Environmental Integrity Project at the Rockefeller Family Fund in Washington D.C. and is a vocal critic of Bush's environmental policies.

He says the administration is trying to shift enforcement to the states, knowing full well that they are ill equipped to pick up the slack.

"State budgets are under terrible pressure," Schaffer said. "Dumping this on the states is not an option."

"This devolution to state enforcement also serves the administration's corporate sponsors, since states are consistently more cooperative and lenient than the federal EPA," he said. "It's no small irony that [EPA] Administrator (Christine) Whitman, when she was governor of New Jersey, eliminated the state environmental prosecutor and made deep cuts in New Jersey's enforcement budget."

Community activists also assert that state and local environmental protection agencies lack the resources to go after big polluters.

Hilton Kelley lives in Port Arthur, Texas, a predominantly African-American town that has four big oil refineries. He says residents are plagued by cancers, headaches, respiratory and skin problems, but that the EPA is actually trying to roll back emissions standards to allow these companies to return to 10-year-old pollution baselines.

"Just yesterday, some type of pump shut down and triggered flames about 20 feet high," he recounted. "They burned for a couple of hours before the problem was fixed. At least two or three times a week, they'll be flaring or putting out some type of foul odor."

"Mostly I work with the state, and it seems as if they're really lax when it comes to fining these companies," said Kelley, a member of the Refinery Reform Campaign. "Because of cutbacks, they just don't have the money or the manpower."

Port Arthur is one of 25 highly polluted communities spotlighted in a new Sierra Club report. Each of these areas has been directly harmed by the Bush administration's bid to cut the EPA's enforcement and clean-up budget, the group says.

The EPA's proposed budget for 2003 would slash 200 inspector jobs, a 13 percent cut in the federal enforcement program. Already, the Markey study notes, the number of agency staffers enforcing air-quality legislation has fallen to the lowest level on record.

"Just as weak oversight of corporate accounting led directly to misleading and fraudulent investment disclosure by companies like Enron, weak enforcement of our environmental laws will lead directly to rising pollution, tainted water supplies and dirty air," the congressman said.

The EPA is currently operating on contingency funds, because Congress is still debating the agency's 2003 budget -- which was supposed to kick in on Oct. 1. One of the sticking points is the money set aside for enforcement, which includes shifting $15 million to state compliance programs.

Last year, legislators resisted cuts in the enforcement budget and reinstated about $25 million in funding.

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Albion Monitor October 10 2002 (

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